Skip to main content

John Whitehead's Commentary

Executing Juvenile Offenders: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Gone

John Whitehead
Steven Edward Roach, who is 23 years old, has spent the last six years on death row. On January 13, 2000, unless Governor Jim Gilmore intervenes, he is scheduled to become Virginia's second execution of the New Year. Roach isn't the typical death row inmate. Rather, he's a member of a small fraternity that makes up the most controversial contingent in the death penalty debate -- a juvenile offender. He was only 17 when he committed the crime that landed him on death row.

In 1989, the Supreme Court weighed in on the debate over juveniles and capital punishment. In Stanford v. Kentucky, the Court declined to rule the execution of juvenile offenders unconstitutional. The nine Justices couldn't reach a clear majority, however, and a mere plurality of the Court issued the decision.

Yet even this narrow victory came with a caveat. The Court cautioned that "The day may come when there is such general legislative rejection of the execution of 16 or 17-year-old capital murderers that a clear national consensus can be said to have developed."

Virginia is obviously one of the states that believes such a national consensus has yet to develop. But that belief is increasingly being called into question by the growing concern toward executing juvenile offenders.

For example, Congress has refused to extend the death penalty to juvenile offenders. This stance echoes the position of the American Bar Association, the American Law Institute, the Model Penal Code and the National Commission of Reform of Federal Criminal Law.

In addition, the scarcity of juvenile offenders executed reveals hesitancy on the part of American courts to impose the ultimate penalty on under-18 criminals. Since 1973, only 173 juvenile offenders have received death sentences, a mere 2.7% of the almost 6,300 total death sentences. Of these 173, however, only 11 have actually been executed. In fact, 92 of the 173 sentences have since been reversed.

On an international level, the consensus is even stronger. Four major human rights treaties prohibit the juvenile death penalty, including the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since 1990, only five other nations have executed juvenile offenders - Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Among these five, there have been only nine executions. In the U.S., however, there have been 10 over the same period.

Decisions about whether to execute someone, however, are not simply a matter of tallying up the yeas and nays on each side of the issue. After all, this is a question with deep religious and moral significance. Many Americans believe that human beings are created in the image of God and have unique and infinite worth.

Execution, however, declares the offender hopeless and beyond redemption either by human skill or the grace of God. In a sense, it is a denial of the sanctity of human life, particularly when administered to juvenile offenders. In an interview with Steve Roach in June 1996, he talked about his faith and how he wasn't afraid of death because of his religious beliefs. He said this faith had been fostered through visits with his hometown pastor and the many Bible correspondence courses he has taken in prison to increase his understanding and personal growth.

After the interview was published, a reader contacted Steve so she and her mom could encourage him. After corresponding for two years, the young woman and Steve were married.

Steve has also been active in trying to help other kids in need and even wrote an essay entitled "My Story" for troubled students. He said that his greatest concern was for his younger brothers who were heading down a road similar to the one he had taken - without an older brother there to help them learn from his mistakes.

So far, neither the emerging legal consensus nor the religious and moral arguments against the death penalty have provided Steve Roach with any comfort. As he sits in a Virginia cell, his life resting in the hands of Governor Gilmore, a decision for clemency would add to the consensus against executing juvenile offenders. And most importantly, it would save the life of a man who realizes the gravity of his crime and who now wants to help others if he is allowed to live.

And although Steve Roach may be a new man, he lives daily knowing that his life is always hanging in the balance. "Over the years, I've tried to prepare myself," Roach wrote in a letter several weeks before his scheduled execution. "My faith in God has kept me alive. But even if it does come to the worse, my belief and faith in our Savior has prepared me for this. I know without a doubt, I'll be in Heaven when I die."

808 words


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

Publication Guidelines / Reprint Permission

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact to obtain reprint permission.