PUCL Bulletin, April 2001
Children and the Death Penalty; Executions Worldwide Since 1990
The use of the death penalty for crimes committed by people younger than 18 is prohibited under international human rights law, yet some countries still execute child offenders. Such executions are few compared to the total number of executions in the world. Their significance goes beyond their number and calls into question the commitment of the executing states to respect international standards.
Since 1990 Amnesty International has documented execution of child offenders in seven countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America (USA) and Yemen. At least two of these countries, Pakistan and Yemen have since changed their laws to exclude the practice. The country, which has carried out the greatest number of known executions in the USA.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases as a violation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. As steps towards total abolition of the death penalty it supports measures which limit the scoop of capital punishment. These include laws which exclude the execution of child offenders people convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18.
2. International standards
The use of the death penalty against child offenders is prohibited under leading international instruments relating to human rights and the conduct of armed hostilities. The relevant texts are as follows:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): "Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age " (Article 6(5)) Convention on the Rights of the Child: "Neither capital punishment not life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age "(Article 37(a)). American Convention on Human Rights: "Capital punishment shall not be imposed upon persons who, at the time the crime was committed, were under 18 years of age "(Article 4(5)). Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War 12 August 1949 (Fourth Geneva Convention): 'In any case, the death penalty may not be pronounced against a protected persons who was under eighteen years of age at the time of the offence" (Article 68). Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Additional Protocol I): "The death penalty for an offence related to the armed conflict shall not be executed on persons who had not attained the age of eighteen years at the time the offence was committed" (Article 77(5)) Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Additional Protocol II): "The death penalty shall not be pronounced on persons who were under the age of eighteen years at the time of the offence " (Article 6(4)).
Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights to Those Facing the Death Penalty (UN Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50, adopted on 25 May 1984 and endorsed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in resolution 39/118 of 14 December 1984): "Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime shall not be sentenced to death ".
The first six instruments cited above are international treaties, binding on all states parties to them. The Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty ("ECOSOC Safeguards") are not legally binding but were endorsed by the UN General Assembly without a vote, a sign of a strong consensus among nations that their provisions should be observed.
The nearly universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is an especially strong sign of an international consensus that the death penalty must not be used against child offenders. As of October 2000, 191 states were parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Fourth Geneva Convention also is very widely ratified; 188 states were parties to it as of October 2000, pointing to a consensus that the death penalty must not be used against civilian child offenders in occupied territories who are protected by that convention.
3. Opposition at the United Nations
As mentioned above, the UN General Assembly endorsed the ECOSOC Safeguards stating that people below 18 at the time of the crime must not be sentenced to death in 1984. Since then there have been many UN resolutions emphasizing the importance of the ECOSOC Safeguards and the prohibition of using the death penalty against child offenders.
In 1997 the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted resolution 1997/92 expressing deep concern "that several countries impose the death penalty in disregard of the limitations provided for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child". The Commission urged "all States that still maintain the death penalty to comply fully with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, notably not to impose the death penalty for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age", and called upon all such states to observe the ECOSOC Safeguards. The same language was included in resolution 2000/65, adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in April 2000.
In August 2000 the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted resolution 2000/17 on "The Death Penalty in Relation to Juvenile Offenders", condemning unequivocally the use of the death penalty against people under 18 at the time of the offence and affirming that such use "is contrary to customary international law". It called on states that retain the death penalty for child offenders to change their laws as soon as possible and in the meantime "to remind their judges that the imposition of the death penalty against such offenders is in violation of international law".
4. National Law and practice
One hundred and fifteen states whose laws still provide for the death penalty for at least some offences either have provisions in their laws which exclude the use of the death penalty against child offenders, of may be presumed to exclude such use by virtue of becoming parties to the International Covenant to Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the American Convention on Human Rights without entering a reservation to the relevant articles of these treaties. One country, the USA, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992 with a reservation reserving for itself the right to use the death penalty against child offenders. Eleven other states parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights formally objected to the US reservation.
In 1999 the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted resolution 1999/61 urging all states that still maintain the death penalty "not to enter any new reservations under article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which may be contrary to the object and the purpose of the Covenant and to withdraw any such existing reservations, given that article 6 of the Covenant enshrines the minimum rules for the protection of the right to life and the generally accepted standards in this area". The same request was included in resolution 2000/65, adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in April 2000.
Despite the international standards, a number of countries still have laws which permit the imposition of death sentences on child offenders in at least some circumstances. Most of these countries set age limits of 16 or 17, but a few set lower ages.
Since the beginning of 1994 at least five countries have changed their laws to eliminate the use of the death penalty against child offenders: Barbados, Pakistan, Yemen, Zimbabwe and China.
As detailed below, seven countries are reported to have executed child offenders since 1990. Five of them have done so in violation of their obligations as parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and five of them in violation of their obligations as parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, two of these countries, Yemen and Pakistan, have since eliminated the use of the death penalty against child offenders. One other, Saudi Arabia, may also have decided to so do so.
5. Executions of child offender since 1990
Country-by-country information on executions of child offenders since 1990 follows:
Democratic Republic of Congo
Despite of declaration in December 1999 by the Minister for Human Rights that the government was exercising a moratorium on executions, on 15 January 2000 a 14-year-old child soldier named Kasongo was executed within 30 minutes of his trial by the Cour d'ordre militaire, Military Order Court. He and four other soldiers had been found guilty of murdering a driver. Those convicted by the Cour-d'ordre militaire can only appeal to the President for clemency but with execution taking place so soon after sentencing it is doubtful that the President had time to consider appeals.
Since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, thousands of prisoners have been executed, many after summary trials. Amnesty International has documented several executions of child offenders since 1990.
Kaxzem Shirafkhan, aged 17, was executed for murder in 1990.
In his report to the 1993 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions stated that he had received information that three young men, two aged 17 and one aged 16, were executed on 29 September 1992.
On 24 October 1999 Ebrahim Qorbanzadeh, aged 17, was hanged in Rasht for murder.
On 14 January 2000 Jasem Abrahim, aged 17, was publicly hanged in Gonaveh after being convicted of the kidnapping, rape and murder of an 18-month-old child, according to the daily Jumhouri-e Eslami newspaper.
Chidiebore Onuoha, aged 17, was executed on 31 July 1997. He was 15 years old at the time of the armed robbery for which he was executed.
Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. However, on 15 November 1992, 11 persons were hanged in Punjab province, including a boy reportedly aged 17.
On 30 September 1997 Shamun Masih was hanged in Hyderabad for an armed robbery and triple murder committed in 1998 when he was reportedly 14 years old.
The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, which abolishes the death penalty for people under 18 at the time of the offence, entered into force on 1 July 2000. The Ordinance does not make reference to some 50 persons currently under sentence of death who were below the age of 18 at the time of the offence, nor does it provide for a review of such cases.
In his report to the 1993 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions stated that he had received information that a Shi'a Muslim, Sadeq Mal-Allah, had been beheaded on 3 September 1992 in the eastern town of Al-Qatif. He was reportedly sentenced to death at the age of 17 on charges relating to blasphemy after a trial at which he was denied a lawyer.
Saudi Arabia became a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1996. In its initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the measures taken to give effect to the rights recognized in the Convention, the Saudi Arabian government stated that "capital punishment cannot be imposed on children who have not attained the age of majority in accordance with Islamic law". It is not clear from this statement whether Saudi Arabia's law is consistent with the prohibition of use of the death against child offenders under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Amnesty International has sought clarification of this question from the Saudi Arabian government but has not yet received any reply.
United States of America
The country that has carried out more documented executions of child offenders than any other, since 1990, is the USA.
Sixteen US states were holding a total of 83 child offenders on death row as of October 2000. Fourteen executions of child offenders have been carried out in six states since 1990. One of those executed was 16 at the time of the offence; all of the others were 17. Seven of the executions were in Texas, the state that has carried out the largest total number of executions of prisoners since the resumptions of executions in the USA in 1977-233 up to 1 November 2000.
The background of the majority of the child offenders executed since 1990 was one of serious motional or material deprivation. Many were regular users of drugs or alcohols with lower than average intelligence. Some had organic brain damage. Some had poor or inexperienced legal counsel. Highly relevant information was withheld at their trials due to incompetence or inexperience on the part of their lawyers.
Brief details of the 14 cases are given below. The prisoner's race or ethnic grouping and the state are indicated in square brackets:
Dalton Prejean (black, Louisiana), sentenced to death in 1978 and executed in 1990. He was 17 years old at the time of the murder of a police officer in 1977. Prejean was tried before an all-white jury and represented by a court-appointed lawyer. At his trial, evidence was presented of intellectual impairment. His IQ was measured at 71. He was abandoned by his mother at the age of two weeks and was raised by a relative who was reportedly violent. From the age of 13 he spent time to institutions and was diagnosed as suffering from various mental illnesses including schizophrenia. At age 14 he was committed to an institution for killing a tax driver. Medical opinion recommended long-term hospitalization under strict supervision. He was nevertheless released after three years, reportedly because of lack of funds to keep him institutionalised. Despite appeals for clemency in 1989 and 1990 he was electrocuted on 18 May 1990, 12 years after being sentenced to death.
Johnny Garrett (white, Texas) executed in 1992. He was convicted of the murder in 1981 of a 76-year-old white nun. He had a long history of mental illness and was severely sexually and physically abused as a child. This history was not revealed at the trial. Between 1986 and 1992, three medical experts reported that he was chronically psychotic and brain-damaged as a result of head injuries sustained as a child. Appeals for clemency from Pope John Paul II and from the Franciscan Sisters religious community to which the murdered nun belonged were to no avail and Johnny Garrett was executed by lethal injection on 11 February 1992.
Curtis Harris (black, Texas), executed in 1993. He was 17 years old at the time of the crime the murder of a white man in 1978. He was one of nine children brought up in extreme poverty. He was regularly beaten as a child by an alcoholic father. At the trial, three black jurors were excluded; his jury was all white. He was sentenced to death in 1979. His conviction was overturned, he was retried and sentenced to death again in 1983. In 1986 he was examined by Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, who found that he had a low IQ(77) and had organic brain damage resulting from beatings suffered as a child. None of the information about his upbringing or mental capacity was raised by his lawyer at the original trial. His appeals against the sentence failed and he was executed on 1 July 1993.
Frederick Lashley (black, Missouri), executed in 1993. He was the first child offender to be executed in Missouri for 60 years when he was subjected to lethal injection on 28 July 1993. He was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1982 for the murder of his cousin in 1981. He was under the influence of drugs at the time of the killing. He had been abandoned at a young age by his mother and had been brought up by relative. He began drinking alcohol heavily at the age of 10 and at the time of the crime was homeless. At his trial a lawyer who had never previously acted in capital case represented him.
Christopher Burger (white, Georgia) executed in 1993. He was the first child offender to be executed in Georgia under its current death penalty law. He was 17 at the time of the murder, committed in 1977, for which he was convicted. He was sentenced to death in 1978. The sentence was vacated but a new sentencing hearing was held and in 1979 he was again sentenced to death. Fourteen years later he was executed by electrocution.
At his trial a lawyer who had not previously acted in a capital case represented him. Although US juries are required to consider mitigating factors in deciding whether to impose a death sentence, Christopher Burger's lawyer did not present mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearings in either 1978 or 1979. the jury was therefore not told that Christopher Burger had a low IQ, that he was mentally ill and brain damaged from physical abuse received as a child, or that he suffered from a highly disturbed, unstable upbringing and had attempted suicide at the age of 15.
In 1989, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis of the New York University School of Medicine examined Christopher Burger and found organic brain impairment and mental illness. He was scheduled to be executed on 18 December 1990 but received a last-minute stay of execution pending an appeal based on the issue of his mental competence at the time of the crime. The appeal failed and he was executed on 7 December 1993.
Ruben Cantu (Latino, Texas), sentenced to death in 1984 and executed in 1993. He was 17 at the time of the offence. He was represented by an inexperienced lawyer, had a troubled family upbringing and was of limited intellectual capacity.
Joseph John Cannon (white, Texas), executed in 1998 for the murder of Anne Walsh in 1977. He was sentenced to death in 1980. The conviction was overturned in 1981. He was retried and sentenced to death again in 1982. At the age of four, Joseph Cannon was hit by a truck and left hyperactive, with a head injury and a speech impediment. Unable to function in the classroom, he was expelled from school at the age of six or seven and received no other formal education. He turned to glue sniffing and other solvent abuse, and at age 10 he was diagnosed as suffering from organic brain damage. Suffering from severe depression, he attempted suicide at the age of 15. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and borderline mentally retarded. From the age of seven up to the time of the murder for which he was sentenced to death, Joseph Cannon suffered repeated and severe sexual abuse from male relatives. So brutal and abusive was his upbringing that Joseph Cannon thrived better on death row, where he learned to read and write, than he ever had in his home environment. By the time he was killed, Joseph Cannon had spent more than half his life on death row.
Robert Anthony Carter (black, Texas) sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of Sylvia Reyes in 1981 and executed in 1998. Of six children in one of the poorest families of an impoverished Houston neighbourhood, Robert Carter was abused throughout his childhood. His mother and stepfather would whip and beat the children with wooden switches, belts and electric cords. At the age of five he was hit on the head with a brick. At the age of 10 he was hit so hard on the head with a baseball bat that the bat broke. He received no medical attention for these injuries. In an incident shortly before the murder of Sylvia Reyes, Robert Carter was shot in the head by his brother, the bullet lodging near his temple. He afterwards suffered seizures and fainting spells.
At his trial, the prosecution presented its entire case. At the sentencing, during which the prosecutor told the jury that life imprisonment would be like a "slap on the wrist", the jury was not invited to consider as mitigating evidence Robert Carter's age at the time of the crime; the fact that he was borderline mentally retarded, brain damaged and had suffered brutal physical abuse as a child; or that this was his first offence. The jurors took 10 minutes to decide that he should die.
Dwayne Allen Wright (black, Virginia), sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of Saba Tekle in 1989 and executed in 1998. Deayne Wright grew up in a poor family in a deprived neighborhood of the US capital, Washington DC, rife with criminal drugs activity, where he witnessed habitual gun violence and murder. From the age of four, Swayne Wright lost his father to incarceration in prison. His mother, who suffered from mental illness, was often unemployed for long periods. When he was 10, his 23 year old half brother, to whom he was very close, was murdered. After this Dwayne Wright developed serious emotional problems. He did poorly at school. Between the ages of 12 and 17, he spent periods in hospital and juvenile detention facilities. During this time he was treated for "major depression with psychotic episodes"; his mental capacity was evaluated as borderline retarded, his verbal ability as retarded; and doctors found signs of organic brain damage.
The American Bar Association was among the organisations which appealed for clemency for Swayne Wright, stating that his proposed execution "demeans our system of justice" and that "a borderline mentally retarded child simply cannot be held to the same degree of culpability and accountability for the actions to which we would hold an adult".
Sean Sellers (white, Oklahoma), sentenced to death in 1981 for shooting his mother and stepfather and a shopkeeper and executed in 1999. He was the first person since 1959 to be executed in the USA for a crime committed at 16 years of age. Born to a 16 year old mother and raised by various relatives, he was exposed to violence and physical abuse from an early age and became involved with drugs and Satanism. In post-conviction examinations, he was found to be chronically psychotic and to have symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and other major mood disorders. He was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder in 1992. On death row he became very religious and engaged in writing and artwork with a view to helping others learn from his experience. One of his trial jurors appealed for clemency, recalling that the jury never believed that he would be executed but that they feared his early release if they sentenced him to life imprisonment would have meant at least 15 years in prison before he would become eligible for parole.
Chris Thomas (white, Virginia), sentenced to death in 1991 and executed in 2000. After his adoptive parents died when he was 12, Chris Thomas became involved in petty offending and drug abuse. Psychological reports described him as an isolated, angry, depressed, alienated teenager. His intense relationship with 14 year old Jessica Wiseman culminated in their plan to kill her parents. Without an adult present, while still under the effects of alcohol and drugs, and having slept for only two hours in the previous 40, Thomas confessed to both murders. He later said he had not fired the second fatal shot at the mother, whose killing resulted in Chris Thomas' death sentence (he received a life sentence for the murder of the father). The Jury never heard evidence that Jessica Wiseman may have fired this shot. She was released in 1997 at the age of 21.
Steve Roach (white, Virginia), executed in 2000. He had been sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1993 shooting of
Mary Ann Hughes, his only recorded act of violence. Born into a family with frequently absent parents, Roach dropped out of school at 14 because they wanted him to do chores. An expert testified at trial that Roach had poor impulse control and was particularly immature as a result of the lack of structure in his home life. Arguing that Roach was a future danger, the prosecution cited his parole violation in possessing a shotgun as a sign of his future dangerousness, despite the fact that no adult, including the police, had seen fit to remove it from him.
Glen McGinnis (black, Texas) sentenced to death in 1992 and executed in 2000. Glen McGinnis was born to a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine and who worked out of their one bedroom flat as a prostitute. He suffered repeated physical abuse at her hands and those of his stepfather, who raped him when he was nine or 10. He ran away from home at the age of 11 and lived on the streets of Houston where he engaged in shoplifting and car theft. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the shooting of Leta Ann Wilkerson, white, during a robbery in 1990. Various juvenile correctional officials testified that he was non aggressive even in the face of taunts about his homosexuality from other inmates and that he had the capacity to flourish in the structured environment of prison.
Gary Graham (lack Texas) sentenced to death in 1981 and executed in 2000 amid massive national and international media attention. He was born to a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father and was exposed to violence from an early age in the poor neighborhood of Houston where he grew up. He became involved in drug and alcohol abuse and by the age on 15 had a juvenile record for thefts. In 1981, aged 17, he was under arrest for a string of armed robberies and aggravated assaults when he was charged with the murder of Bobby Lambert, white, the crime for which a jury of 11 whites and one black sentenced him to die. He was represented by lawyers too busy to defend a client they apparently assumed was guilty because of the other crimes to which he admitted. Their failure meant that Gary Graham was convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness whose credibility they never scrutinized. Gary Graham's lawyers failed to question suggestive police techniques used in obtaining her identification of Graham. They neglected to interview other, better-placed witnesses, none of whom identified him as the gunman and several of whom said he was not the gunman. No physical evidence linked Gary Graham to the shooting. The jury never heard forensic evidence that a gun found on him at the time of his arrest could not have fired the fatal bullet.
No hearing was ever been held into whether Graham's 19 years claim of innocence was supported by such evidence. Two of the trial jurors signed affidavits that they would not have voted for death if they had been presented with such evidence.
A 13 year old boy, Nasser Munir Nasser al-Kirbi, was publicly hanged in the capital, Sana'a on 21 July 1993, alongwith three men. They had been convicted of murder and highway robbery.
In 1994 the minimum age for the use of the death penalty was raised to 18 years at the time of the offence in the Penal Code (Article 31 of Law 12)
It is now very widely accepted that child offenders must not be subjected to the death penalty. Almost all states are now parties to international treaties which prohibit the sentencing to death of child offenders. A very few states continue to execute child offenders, but such executions are rare and are only a tiny fraction of the total number of executions carried out worldwide each year. Amnesty International considers the exclusion of child offenders from the death penalty is so widely accepted in law and practice that it has become a principle of customary international law, binding on all states regardless of what international instruments they have or have not ratified.
Amnesty International urges all governments to case all executions and abolish the death penalty in law. Pending abolition of the death penalty, a minimum age of 18 should be provided for in legislation, in conformity with this principle.
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