Meese Backs Death Penalty for Capital Crimes by Persons Under 18

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, declaring that “you can have very vicious criminals at age 16,” said Monday that states are justified in putting to death persons who commit capital crimes when they are younger than 18.

“You have kids becoming increasingly sophisticated--I suspect largely by watching television; they’re just smarter, know more,” Meese said at a breakfast with reporters and editors of The Times’ Washington Bureau. And, he noted, “you also have many more crimes” being committed by persons 12 to 18 years old.

Teen-Age Killer

Meese made his remarks five days after the first such execution in the United States in more than two decades, when the state of Texas put to death Charles Rumbaugh Jr. for the murder in 1975--when Rumbaugh was 17--of an Amarillo jeweler during a robbery.

Thirty-two of the 1,540 inmates on Death Row nationwide carried out their crimes when they were younger than 18. California limits the death penalty to persons who were at least 18 at the time of their crime.

Later, at a Justice Department news conference, Meese said also that the department is proposing eight bills to strengthen the federal government’s ability to detect and prosecute fraud cases.


The package, primarily an attempt to clarify existing law, is “the most important legislative initiative Congress could enact to reform the (military) procurement process and reinforce the government’s efforts to prevent waste, fraud and abuse in federal programs,” Meese said.

‘Vicious’ at Age 16

On the question of the death penalty for crimes committed by minors, Meese said, in his first public remarks on the issue:

“There’s no question you can have very vicious criminals at age 16 or 17. Unfortunately, the trend has been in that direction. Most of your violent crime is committed by people under 25 and a good portion of it by people under 18. So, I think a state is justified at imposing a cutoff age for the death penalty at what they think is appropriate.”

As for the states’ establishing a minimum age for executions, Meese said that 14 years old “seems to me to be pretty young but it would depend on the circumstances, I guess, of what a state’s overall legal context was.”

He said the toughest decisions that legislators have to make is how to handle crimes committed by youths 12 to 18 years old. Over the years, there had been a tendency “to say that, below a certain age, people shouldn’t be handled as criminals,” he said.

Juvenile Robbers Cited

But, he noted, “There are kids who, by age 16 or 17, have been arrested and, if you will, convicted or at least held responsible for a whole string of robberies or a whole string of burglaries.”

Among the 35 states that permit capital punishment, 15 explicitly permit executing persons for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old and have set minimums ranging from 10 to 17 years old. No minimum exists in 11 states, but the laws in those states require judges and juries to consider age a mitigating factor in imposing capital punishment.

Three other states do not require that age be considered a mitigating factor, making it theoretically possible for a person of any age to be put to death. Five other states besides California have adopted the 18-year minimum.

Deterrent to Espionage

On a related topic, Meese said that he thought the death sentence could be a deterrent in certain espionage cases, although he did not specify what the circumstances of those cases might be.

“I believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the most serious cases, and I don’t think that it would be a good idea to just be asking for the death penalty in every espionage case,” he said.

The anti-fraud package ranges from a proposal to remove fraud cases involving less than $100,000 from the already-clogged federal court system to one that would partly overturn a 1983 Supreme Court decision that restricted civil attorneys’ ability to obtain access to criminal evidence presented to a grand jury.