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2:12 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Legal community reacts to Supreme Court decision

PRESCOTT – Some members of the local legal community seem to embrace the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling to bar capital punishment for defendants who were younger than 18 at the time they committed first-degree murder.

The 5-to-4 decision in Roper v. Simmons affects five Arizona defendants who received death sentences and currently are awaiting state or federal appellate action, according to an Arizona Attorney General's Office press release.

Interim Yavapai County Public Defender Janet Lincoln, who has a background in juvenile law, said she is thrilled with the decision and she considers it a step in the right direction.

She said a significant amount of information is now coming in about the human brain suggesting that the last portion of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which is the area that calls for judgment, and that it is still developing into one's early 20s.

Youths "do not have very good judgment as teenagers," she said. "I think it is much more humane (not to execute such convicted killers). As a society we have to look at these types of issues."

Lincoln said youths who commit first-degree murder are dangerous and they deserve punishment, but "I certainly do not think that killing them is an appropriate answer."

She said whether someone commits a crime a day before or after his or her 18th birthday may be a two-day difference, but a cut-off date must exist.

"This (the ruling) gives us a clear line," she said. "If they are 18 and they murder someone, that could be a capital murder case. If they are younger than 18, it cannot be a capital murder case."

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Ralph Hess said the decision will affect any juvenile cases in the future that come before any judicial officer in Yavapai County. No juvenile has received the death penalty in this county since justices reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

"The Supreme Court is giving us guidance with respect to sentencing restriction in those types of cases," he said.

Hess said justices ruled based on the 8th and 14th Amendments. He said although these amendments existed for more than 200 years "the law is dynamic and as the cases come before the U.S. Supreme Court, it makes decisions."

"It becomes the law of the land," he said. "They look at what is presented to them on a given case and then they render the decision based on the rationale that they set forth in the opinion."

Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Mark Ainley said, "It doesn't upset me one way or the other."

He said he needs to read the opinion to be able to comment any further.

Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Dennis McGrane said Tuesday that he has a tendency to side with the justices that joined in the dissenting opinion – Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas.

"I would like to know what was their reasoning," he said, referring to the five justices who joined in the majority opinion.

McGrane said clearly a line should exist when it is appropriate to punish a minor with death. However, courts should decide it on a case-by-case basis, he said, asking what the difference is between a person who committed a crime one day before his or her 18th birthday and an adult who murdered someone a day after his or her 18th birthday.

In addition, he said, a previous sentencing change allowed a jury to determine whether a minor should die for committing first-degree murder. But the latest decision abolishes that right.

"Twelve people of this community can make an informed decision," he said.

Defense Attorney John Sears said the Supreme Court continues to shrink the scope of the death penalty.

"It throws out an Arizona law," he said, adding that the highest court in the land previously outlawed executions for those who were 15 or younger when they committed their crimes.

He said justices went even further and banned executions of the mentally retarded.

Sears said justices look at the cases to determine where society is on a particular issue, and noted that age 18 is the line that society draws between childhood and adulthood. He said teenagers may not vote before their 18th birthday and to consume alcohol before their 21st birthday. Yet some states, including Arizona, lowered the age bar for the death penalty.

John Mabery, director of the Yavapai County Juvenile Probation Department, said, "I see it as a positive. I think that we should be taking a real hard look before we execute juveniles."

He said the decision should not have a major effect on the juvenile justice system because most juvenile offenders transfer into the adult prison system to serve their sentences.

"Any juveniles that would be on death row would be in the adult system," Mabery said.

Defense attorney Kenneth Ray said he doesn't believe the country will do away with the death penalty in his lifetime and that "I'm pleased if it is a step toward nullification of the death penalty."

Many nations worldwide have not only banned the execution of minors, but also of adults. The Associated Press reported, for example, that in recent years only a handful of countries put juvenile offenders to death including Iran, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

"We are satisfied at being backwards," Ray added, referring to capital punishment in this country.

Contact the reporter at mburicadam@prescottaz.com