Amnesty International - Report - AMR 51/189/99
December 1999
United States of America
United States of America. Shame in the 21st Century. Three Child Offenders Scheduled for Execution in January 2000

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Shame in the 21st Century
Three child offenders scheduled for execution in January 2000

A question of leadership

I don't think we should be proud of the fact that the United States is the world leader in the execution of child offenders.” US Senator Russ Feingold, 11 November 1999 See footnote 1

The USA is set to open the 21st century with a triple human rights violation of a type which almost every other country has consigned to history. Three prisoners in their 20s - Douglas Christopher Thomas , Steve Edward Roach and Glen Charles McGinnis - are facing execution in January 2000 for murders committed when they were children. All were 17 years old at the time of the crimes for which they are scheduled to die, making their planned executions a blatant violation of international law. See footnote 2

    A global consensus against executing child offenders -- those under age 18 at the time of their crimes -- is not hard to demonstrate. A total of 191 countries -- all but the USA and the collapsed state of Somalia -- have ratified the 10-year-old UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids the death penalty against such defendants. Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty which came into force in 1976 and was ratified by the USA in 1992, carries the same non- derogable prohibition. See footnote 3 Violations of this ban have become almost unknown in recent years, raising it to a principle of customary international law binding on all countries regardless of which international instruments they have or have not ratified.

    The USA has earned the shameful distinction of leading a tiny and dwindling group of perpetrator states. See footnote 4 Only five countries outside the United States are known to have executed child offenders since 1990. One of them, Yemen, has since outlawed this practice, as has China, the country responsible for the world's highest annual judicial death toll. In contrast, the USA has executed 10 child offenders in the past decade, more than the five other countries combined. See footnote 5 All four child offenders known to have been put to death in the world since October 1997 were killed in the USA. See footnote 6 Such statistics alone give the lie to claims that the United States is a paragon of respect for human rights and international law.

    The double standards operated by the US government are remarkable. Among the best known treaties in the world are the Geneva Conventions, which the United States ratified in 1955, and which it has cited and relied upon countless times since. Article 68(4) of the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly forbids a party that occupies foreign territory from applying the death penalty to a foreign national “who was under eighteen years of age at the time of the offence”. The US accepted this prohibition without reservation, thereby agreeing for the past 45 years not to execute other states' children -- even in wartime. Yet it refuses to offer children this very protection within its own borders. See footnote 7

    The government of the world's most powerful economy remains unwilling to turn its resources or imagination away from allowing certain children to be labelled as beyond redemption and led to the execution chamber. See footnote 8 This was again demonstrated in October 1999 when the US Solicitor General filed a brief in the Supreme Court setting out the federal government's view that the USA is not obliged under international law or its treaty obligations to exempt children from the death penalty. The Solicitor General maintained that the USA's express rejection of the prohibition on the execution of child offenders made when the US government ratified the ICCPR, is valid. The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body which oversees countries' compliance with the treaty, disagrees, as do many other international monitors. See footnote 9

    The US government's position amounts to more than just a question of the morality, or even the legality, of killing children who kill. How can it be interpreted as anything less than a deliberate attack on the whole enterprise of creating a viable international system for the protection of fundamental human rights? When any state, let alone a country as powerful as the US, insists on its right to adopt a pick and choose approach to international standards, the integrity of those standards erodes. Why should any other state not then claim for itself the prerogative to adhere to only those portions of international human rights law with which it feels comfortable? How can any legitimate international system of law be established and sustained when undermined by domestic politics?

    The Solicitor General's October brief concluded by urging the Supreme Court not to carry out its own examination of the USA's international obligations on the use of the death penalty against children. On 1 November 1999 his government's wish was fulfilled -- and a joint failure of leadership at the highest levels of US officialdom was confirmed -- when the Court announced that it would not consider the matter. See footnote 10 Three days later, a Texas jury sent a 17-year-old to death row to join the 70 other such prisoners in 16 states under sentence of death for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17. See footnote 11

    These 70 individuals, including Chris Thomas , Steve Roach and Glen McGinnis, were convicted of appalling crimes, with tragic consequences for the loved ones of the victims. The global consensus against executing them, however, is not an attempt to condone their crimes or belittle the suffering of the victims and their families. It is to demand a world where the immaturity of children and their potential for positive change are recognized, where the rule of international human rights law is respected, and where each and every state seeks to demolish, rather than deepen, the culture of violence.

    On 11 November 1999, Senator Russ Feingold of the United States Congress called for abolition of the federal death penalty “to mark the new millennium”. In his nine-page statement he said: “With each new death penalty statute enacted and each execution carried out, our executive, judicial and legislative branches, at both the state and federal level, add to a culture of violence and killing. With each person executed, we're teaching our children that the way to settle scores is through violence, even to the point of taking a human life.” Senator Feingold's statement is a courageous act of human rights leadership, sadly lacking in a country where unflinching support for the death penalty is too often seen as a prerequisite for electoral success.

    More than half a century ago, the USA was one of the leading actors in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Punctuating the middle of a bloody century, the UDHR drew a vision of a world where the rights to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment were guaranteed to all. As we move into the next century, what better way for leaders in the USA to honour that vision than by stopping the executions of Chris Thomas, Steve Roach and Glen McGinnis as a genuine first step to abolition of this outdated punishment.

[ August 1999 - Governor Bush of Texas meets children in Roanoke, Virginia, during his bid to become the Republican Party's candidate for US President.

© AP/Steve Helber

Under Governor Bush, Texas has continued to be the leading US death penalty state, with over 100 executions during his term in office. Texas accounts for more than a third of the nation's child offenders on death row -- 28 prisoners on the state's death row are there for crimes committed when they were 17 - 12 are black, 12 are Latino and four are white. In 1998, Texas executed two child offenders. Another, Glen McGinnis, is facing execution in Texas on 25 January 2000. ]

Douglas Christopher Thomas - scheduled for execution on 10 January 2000 - Virginia

To tell you the truth I don't know what to do. I'm really starting to get scared. I'm too damn young to die...” Chris Thomas, letter from death row, Virginia, 1992.

Chris Thomas, who has lived under an official death threat his whole adult life, was five hours from execution on 16 June 1999 when the Virginia Supreme Court granted him a reprieve. See footnote 12 He was “tearful” and “very joyous” when his lawyers told him the news, and immediately rang his parents (with whom he has reconciled over recent years) to tell them. An hour earlier he had said his final goodbyes to them. He is now facing execution again.