Bianca Jagger Reflects on Working Toward Peace

The United States is the only democracy in the Western world that continues to execute its citizens. It is ironic that a country that proclaims itself to be the world's most progressive force for human rights is the leading member of a far less distinguished circle of nations, whose claim to fame is that they execute people for crimes they committed as children. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen are the only other countries known to have executed juvenile offenders during the past decade, killing nine among them. The United States executed ten juvenile offenders in the 1990s, more than the rest of the world combined, and it is becoming increasingly isolated in this practice. Indeed, in 1994 Yemen abolished the execution of juveniles under age eighteen. Furthermore, China, which has the world's highest number of annual executions, has also abolished the death penalty for people who commit crimes as children.
Fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its vision of universal freedoms, more than half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law and practice. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child in article 37(a) proscribes imposing the death penalty on persons for offenses they commit when still children. One hundred and ninety-two countries have ratified this human rights treaty, all except Somalia-a nearly collapsed state-and the United States.
More than 350 years have elapsed since the execution in 1642 of Thomas Graunger in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was the first recorded person to be executed for offenses he committed at the age of sixteen. Although the methods of execution have changed, and some states would like us to believe their methods are more humane, nothing can mask the horror of a government taking the lives of its own children. It is a barbaric practice. More than 360 juvenile offenders have been executed since Thomas Graunger.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, the United States has proceeded in its wholesale expansion of state-sanctioned killing. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, sixteen people have been executed for crimes they committed when still children; this is in flagrant violation of international law, as well as evolving standards of humanity and decency. Currently the United States has the highest
juvenile death row population in the world: sixty-nine. Sixty-four percent of them are minorities-black or Latino. In the first four months of 2000, the United States executed three people for crimes they committed when under age eighteen.
In 1988's Thompson v. Oklahoma ruling, the Supreme Court held that executions of offenders age fifteen and younger at the time of their crimes are unconstitutional. Yet individual states can set the minimum age below eighteen. According to Professor Streib at Ohio Northern University, of the thirty-eight states that allow the death penalty, fifteen set the age at eighteen, five at seventeen, and nineteen have a minimum age of sixteen.
For twenty years, I have campaigned for justice and human rights throughout the world, speaking on behalf of children's rights, women's rights, and victims of war crimes. I am a member of the executive director's leadership council of Amnesty International U.S.A. Four years ago,
I received a call from their Chicago office to file a clemency petition for Guinevere Garcia, who was scheduled to be executed on January 17, 1996. Guinevere had withdrawn all her appeals. Her life had been scarred by violence; beginning at age six she had been sexually abused by her uncle. I moved to Chicago for a short while to work on her case with Amnesty International. I made a personal plea to Governor Edgar of Illinois to grant clemency to Guinevere and commute her sentence to life imprisonment without parole. Governor Edgar granted her clemency, stating that Guinevere's case was "not the kind of case I had in mind when I voted as a legislator to restore the death penalty and acted as governor to expand it. It also is not the kind of case that typically results in a death sentence in Illinois."
Since that time, I have spoken on behalf of many death row juveniles. On some of those cases, I worked with the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's program called Stop Killing Kids. One case was that of Shareef Cousin, an innocent child sentenced to death in Louisiana at the age of sixteen. It took three long years before this miscarriage of justice was corrected. He was the eighth child sentenced to death in Louisiana. In each of these cases, the child facing execution was black. The death penalty has always been fraught with racial bias.
After Shareef, we have never been able to save another young person on death row. Sean Sellers, who suffered from a mental disorder and a brain injury, was the first United States citizen in forty years to be executed for a crime committed at sixteen. His case illustrates the lack of meaningful appellate review. Sean was a compelling case for clemency, yet he was denied that relief. Clemency should be an essential part of our criminal justice system. It should be the state's mechanism by which to remedy legal errors and to recognize the extent of a person's growth, remorse, and rehabilitation. Sean met several of the humanitarian criteria. His execution only served to complete the cycle of violence.
Sean talked to me days before he was executed about the double standard of the legal system in the United States, which draws clear lines excluding juveniles from certain activities deemed appropriate only for adults. "In this country," he said, "a child of sixteen is barely old enough to drive, cannot vote or serve on a jury, cannot join the military. He is not allowed to purchase alcohol and cigarettes in most states until he reaches twenty-one."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, working with death penalty persons has changed my life. In many ways, it has brought me closer to God. I was very affected by the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. She was no longer a threat to society and was fully rehabilitated. When I met her at the Mountain View Prison near Austin, Texas, days before her execution by lethal injection, Karla was calm and ready to receive whatever God had in store for her. I will never forget the day she was executed. Hundreds of people clamored and celebrated outside the Huntsville, Texas, prison when it was announced she had lost her final appeal. When the loudspeaker declared that her execution had begun at 6:16 p.m., people cheered and applauded. It was an image reminiscent of public lynchings from the Middle Ages. I cannot understand how people can find pleasure in, or believe that civilized values are served by, the killing of another human being.
In spite of the merits of Sean Sellers's case, he received the ultimate penalty for his crime: death. I speak on behalf of Sean, and those like him, as a human rights advocate who recognizes that it is the human capacity for change and redemption that endows us all with the potential to become better people. Killing Sean, or killing Karla Faye Tucker, shuts out the light of redemption that exists in all of us.



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