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High Court to Rule on Death Sentence for Young Murderers

Associated Press

As a child, Heath Wilkins liked to set fires and break into houses looking for knives and money. He plotted to poison his mother when he was 10, and at 16 he stabbed a convenience store clerk to death as she begged for her life.

Kevin Stanford plunged into crime at age 9. He was a drug addict at 12 and was arrested for robbery, burglary, assault, attempted rape and other crimes by 17. That’s when he raped, robbed and murdered a gas station attendant.

Stanford and Wilkins are among two dozen Death Row inmates sentenced for crimes committed before they were 18. After a splintered ruling last year, the Supreme Court picked their cases to determine if executing such youthful offenders is cruel and unusual in violation of the Constitution.

Split on Oklahoma Case

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The court, which split 5 to 3 in throwing out the death penalty of an Oklahoma killer who committed his crime at age 15, will hear arguments Monday.

Wilkins is on Missouri’s Death Row. State Atty. Gen. William Webster will contend that society’s “evolving standards of decency” permit execution of 16- and 17-year-olds. Most of the 37 states that allow capital punishment permit execution of those who commit murder at age 16.

Kentucky, where Stanford has spent nearly seven years awaiting execution, will argue that age, although a mitigating circumstance, should not automatically preclude a death sentence if it fits the crime. A brief by Assistant Atty. Gen. David Smith urges the court to stick to its position that all capital cases should be considered individually, without blanket exemptions.

Death penalty opponents and attorneys for Stanford and Wilkins argue that society has always presumed juveniles to be immature and irresponsible and has restricted their rights and responsibilities in such areas as drinking, voting and military service. They say also that execution is no deterrent to crime.

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Death ‘Kind of Sexy’

To teen-agers, death is “kind of glamorous, it’s ‘Rambo,’ it’s kind of sexy. It attracts them like the flame attracts the moth,” Victor Streib told Missouri lawmakers recently when he testified in support of a measure to make 18 the minimum age for executions. He was co-counsel for William Wayne Thompson of Oklahoma, whose case the Supreme Court split on last year.

Four justices said the death penalty is unconstitutional for those younger than 16 when they commit murder. Three said the Constitution does not set such age limits. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor provided the fifth vote to throw out the death penalty for Thompson, but she stopped short of calling for abolition of capital punishment for killers under 16.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s vote will be key this session. Kennedy joined the court in February, 1988, too late to participate in the Oklahoma case. His views on the death penalty for youthful killers is not known.

Of 106 people executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, three committed their crimes when they were 17. No one has been executed since 1948 for a crime committed at a younger age.

Killer Abused as Child

Wilkins has said he doesn’t want his childhood to be an issue in his case. But, in a 49-page court filing, his attorneys describe a childhood of sexual and physical abuse, drugs and liquor. His first burglary was at age 7, and at 10 he bought rat poison from a garden store, tried it on a dog, then put it into some Tylenol capsules intended for his mother and her boyfriend. She found out, secretly emptied the capsules and then made Heath swallow them.

About that time, he was put in the first of several mental facilities. After his release from state custody in 1985, Wilkins was kicked out of his mother’s house and began living in a wooded park north of Kansas City.

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In July, 1985, Wilkins plotted the robbery of Linda’s Liquors and Deli in Avondale. He told his girlfriend, Pat (Bo) Stevens, and another friend about the plan and, on a Saturday night late that month, they and another man took two cabs to a hospital near the store. The other two waited as Wilkins and Stevens went to the store. Stevens grabbed Nancy Allen, 26, and Wilkins stabbed her in the back and three times in the chest. As she pleaded for mercy, he stabbed her four times in the throat.

The robbery netted $450 in cash and checks, cigarettes, cheap wine and peppermint schnapps.

Sentenced to Life

Stevens pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. The two other accomplices were convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder; one got probation and the other was sentenced to 15 years.

Wilkins, who had planned to kill any witnesses because “a dead person can’t talk,” asked for the death penalty.

“There are lots of people sitting on the Death Row, but nobody gets killed,” he told a psychiatrist in 1986. “They all get special treatment and you can go on for a long time before you can die, and I’m going to get that time.”

This January, Missouri executed its first inmate since 1965.

Stanford’s attorneys, in addition to the broader arguments, contend that, because Kentucky lacks the intensive treatment program needed to rehabilitate him, the death penalty should be precluded for him in particular.

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“I get the impression that he would have been a career criminal anyway,” prosecutor Ernest Jasmin said. “The earlier the age the individual begins to participate in criminal activity, the greater likelihood there is that he will remain basically a career criminal. Stanford basically fits the profile. . . . The likelihood of turning him around is going to be slim and none.”

Lived With Grandmother

Stanford came from Louisville’s low-income West End, his surroundings modest but hardly desperate. He apparently never knew his father; his mother, a hospital therapist, worked long hours. Until he was 6, he lived mostly with his near-invalid grandmother. By age 12, he was a drug addict. He was in and out of juvenile court, juvenile-home placements and programs for young offenders.

Stanford and his mother “tolerated one another while Kevin was at home,” said one report by the state human resources department. He quit school after ninth grade and fathered a child out of wedlock at 17.

“The fact that an individual might have come from a poor background or a one-parent household does not forgive him for committing a crime,” Jasmin said. “It’s not an excuse, as far as I’m concerned.”

On Jan. 7, 1981, Baerbel Poore, 20, was alone at a service station next to Stanford’s apartment, working nights to support an infant daughter. Stanford and two other teen-agers decided to rob the station.

Stanford and David Buchanan, 18, sexually abused and terrorized Poore in the bathroom while 15-year-old Troy Johnson waited in a car. Stanford then forced Poore into her car and drove with her to a woods, followed by the other two. Stanford gave her a last cigarette, then shot her twice in the head.

Stole Cigarettes

The take from the robbery was 300 cartons of cigarettes, $143.07, two gallons of gasoline and a gas can. The three were arrested within the week after police investigated cigarette-peddling in the neighborhood.

Johnson’s case remained in juvenile court and he testified against Stanford and Buchanan, who were tried together in August, 1982. Buchanan did not face the death penalty because he was not the triggerman; he was sentenced to life.

Prison guards testified at the trial that Stanford had boasted to cellmates of raping and killing Poore. His lawyers contended that was the bravado of an adolescent, further proof of the immaturity that made a death sentence wrong.

Throughout the trial, Stanford had “a smirk on his face” and would whisper taunts at him, Jasmin said. Robert Poore, the victim’s father, said Stanford “stood there and laughed at me and Ingrid in the courtroom.”

Poore, a truck driver, said he would be at the Supreme Court on Monday along with his daughter, Mona Mills, and Baerbel’s 9-year-old daughter. His wife, Ingrid, died of cancer in October, 1987.

“I don’t want to go, but I made two vows,” Poore said. “I made a vow to Baerbel when I buried her that I’m going to do everything I can to see that maggot punished, and that (her) little girl would be raised.

“I hope they put him back on Death Row,” he said, “and I hope I can go out there and watch him die.”


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