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Letter to Governor of Virginia

We are writing to urge you to commute the death sentence of Douglas Christopher Thomas, who is scheduled for execution tomorrow. Mr. Thomas was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of his girlfriend's parents, crimes which he committed at the age of seventeen and apparently at his girlfriend's behest. No civilized society can accept the execution of a person who was a child at the time he committed his crimes.

Mr. Thomas's execution would disregard international standards which call upon states not to execute juvenile offenders. Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, expressly forbids the imposition of capital punishment on offenders who were under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime for which they were convicted. Although the United States purports to reserve the right to impose capital punishment on juvenile offenders, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the treaty body charged with interpreting the Covenant, has concluded that the U.S. reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty and therefore void as a matter of international law.

The international standard forbidding the execution of juvenile offenders reflects the reality that children are different from adults; that they lack the experience, perspective, judgment, maturity, and restraint of an adult; and that with help even the most errant may be rehabilitated. Around the world, even in societies with harsh criminal justice systems, the law acknowledges the immorality and injustice of imposing death—a uniquely cruel and irreversible punishment—for crimes committed by children. The United States shares with countries such as Iran, Nigeria, and Pakistan the dubious distinction of being willing to defy the worldwide consensus that the death penalty should not be imposed for crimes committed by juveniles. By granting clemency to Mr. Thomas, you can help to bring this country's practice into line with a basic principle of international justice.

We are troubled by the fact that significant mitigating factors were never considered by the jury in Mr. Thomas's case. A clinical psychologist testified that Mr. Thomas was "developmentally immature" and unable "to make decisions at an adult level." Mr. Thomas's schoolteachers testified that he had a troubled youth and was susceptible to the influence of others. Although factors such as these surely play a role in determining a individual's culpability for the crimes he or she has committed, the jury in Mr. Thomas's case found no mitigating circumstances.

We are also concerned by the way Mr. Thomas's case was transferred from juvenile court to the circuit court. Mr. Thomas's first court-appointed attorney, later relieved as counsel in the case, waived his right to a juvenile court hearing. Although Mr. Thomas later sought unsuccesfully to repudiate his former counsel's action, he was tried as an adult without receiving a transfer hearing before a juvenile court judge, who would have had the opportunity to consider the nature of his offense, his age and history, and the possibility of treating him in the juvenile system. The decision to try a child as an adult should only be made by a judge after a full and impartial hearing—certainly not, as in Mr. Thomas's case, by the actions of an attorney who is later dismissed. It is particularly disturbing that Mr. Thomas never received an individualized transfer hearing even though he faced the death sentence if tried as an adult.

Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based international human rights organization, opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. We believe that executions are oftern carried out in a discriminatory manner and inflicted primarily on the most vulnerable—the poor, minorities, and mentally ill or retarded persons. The instrinsic fallability of all criminal justice systems ensures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons are sometimes executed. Therefore, we oppose all executions under law whenever and wherever carried out, irrespective of the crime and the legal process leading to their implementation.

We urge you to grant clemency to Douglas Christopher Thomas.


Michael Bochenek
Children's Rights Division

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