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Death for Juvenile Crimes : Execution, a Practice Dating to 1642, May Continue This Week

<i> Watt Espy, director of the Capital Punishment Research Project in Headland, Ala., has documented more than 14,500 executions in the United States. </i>

On Jan. 11, 1985, South Carolina electrocuted Joseph Carl Shaw, a 29-year-old soldier and military policeman, for the brutal murder of a 17-year-old youth and the rape-murder of his 14-year-old girlfriend.

One year later, this Friday, the state plans to wipe the slate clean concerning this case by executing his accomplice, James Terry Roach. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear Roach’s latest appeal, and, since Gov. Richard W. Riley announced last week that he would not grant executive clemency, Roach probably will follow his companion in rape and murder to the electric chair.

Motivated by greed and lust, they committed a heartless and senseless crime. Even though both of them pleaded guilty and were sentenced to die by a judge who decided on the degree of their guilt and the extent of their punishment, there were fundamental differences in the two.

Shaw was an adult, 22 at the time of the crime, who had served with honor in the Army until he turned to alcohol and drugs to escape the stress caused by the failure of a disastrous marriage.

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Roach was a juvenile, only 17, on Oct. 29, 1977, the day on which the murder occurred. A reformatory escapee, he was subsequently found by examining psychiatrists to be mentally retarded, and it has been claimed that he suffers from Huntington’s Chorea, a degenerative brain disease that it is likely would have influenced his actions even then.

The trial judge noted three aggravating circumstances in the murder--rape, kidnaping and robbery--in the report that he filed with his judgment and sentence for review by the higher courts as required by South Carolina law. But he also noted no fewer than six mitigating circumstances: Roach had no prior record of violence, he was under extreme emotional stress or disorder at the time of the murders, he was under the duress or domination of another person (presumably the older, more experienced Shaw), his capacity to appreciate the enormity of his actions and to comply with the requirements of the law was substantially impaired, his mentality, and the fact that he was under 18 at the time of the crime.

Even though the judge found twice as many mitigating as aggravating circumstances, he nonetheless sentenced this boy to die. He had the power to do so, because South Carolina law requires the finding of only one aggravating circumstance to merit the death sentence.

The execution of juveniles in the United States is far older than the country itself; the first recorded instance occurred in 1642, when 17-year-old Thomas Granger was hanged in Massachusetts for the crime of sodomy.

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The youngest persons known to have been executed were three 12-year-old convicted murderers: Hannah Ocuish, a Native American girl, who was hanged at New London, Conn., on Dec. 20, 1786; Clem, a slave, who was hanged at Sussex, Va., on May 11, 1787, and Bill, another slave, who was hanged in Woodford County, Va., on July 30, 1791.

Most of us probably prefer to think that the state-sanctioned killings of persons of such tender years belongs to the remote past, even as do executions for witchcraft. But, sadly enough, such is not the case. When Joe Persons was hanged at Jackson, Ga., on Sept. 24, 1915, contemporary newspaper accounts estimated his age as being “from 12 to 15,” but the same accounts, saying that he weighed only 65 pounds, would indicate that he was nearer the former than the latter age. Because he was so immature and underdeveloped, local officials actually debated the practicality of adding weights to his body to ensure a successful hanging.

South Carolina already holds the dubious distinction of having executed the youngest person in recent years, George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old, who was electrocuted on June 16, 1944. The child was so small that the guards had difficulty in strapping his body into a chair that had been designed for adult offenders.

Currently well over 300 juveniles have been executed in this country--which professes to love, pamper and protect its young. The last such execution was in Texas on Sept. 11, 1985, when Charles Rumbaugh, who like Roach was only 17 at the time of the crime, was executed for a 1975 murder. But there was a difference in the two cases: Rumbaugh wanted to die, and had abandoned his appeals. Roach wants to live, and has sought clemency from the governor.

Young Stinney, too, sought clemency from the governor of South Carolina, then Olin D. Johnston. However, Johnston, considered a liberal by Southern standards, was embroiled in what turned out to be a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. It would have been imprudent indeed for one who hoped to soon don a senatorial toga to have granted a commutation of sentence to the penniless black child who had been convicted of the rape-murder of a white female child.

The state’s current governor, Riley, who receives accolades as one of the New South’s moderates, has often voiced his own personal opposition to the death penalty, but he allowed the execution of Shaw to take place. Other Southern governors, who professed similar opposition, have done the same.

Of course, they were not faced with the dilemma that now confronts Riley--that of approving the execution of a person who, in addition to being mentally retarded, was also a juvenile at the time that he committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die.

If Riley goes along with the electrocution of young Roach, it will indicate that, perhaps, things have not changed much in the Palmetto State since that day in 1944 when it allowed the execution of a 14-year-old.

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If he does not, and decides to commute Roach’s sentence, it might be an indication that, perhaps, great fundamental changes have taken place in the minds of Southerners whose thoughts generally are reflected in the actions of their more ambitious politicians.


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