There is another case currently before the Supreme Court besides the ‘Obamacare’ one and it speaks to a fundamental question for America: when did it give up hope?
The case involves two children sentenced to life without parole, one of whom murdered someone, and the other was an accessory, when they were 14. America has been up there with Iran in its treatment of child offenders — it led the world in executions of children until 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled against.
There are around 80 boys now locked up for life for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14. Around 2,300 juveniles across the United States have been sentenced to life without parole.
America is among a tiny minority of countries (Somalia is another) that have refused to sign up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that expressly forbids locking up those under 18 for life.
Hearing the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made this observation:
“You’re making a 14-year-old throwaway person.”
Kent Holt, an assistant Arkansas attorney general, who is defending the sentencing, objected. He cited a 1979 Arkansas commuted case and said that 30 such requests had been granted in the five years before.
Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer arguing against the sentencing and also the lawyer in the child executions case before the Supreme Court, clarified. In Arkansas, commutations had become rare in the last 30 years, he said. Since 2007, there has been only one.
Hope is the issue
Are these kids without potential redemption? Stevenson argues no, it is possible, and to prove it he provided testimony from those who had committed terrible crimes when children, including from former child soldiers, yet had completely redeemed themselves. He also presented the evidence plain to any parent, that teenagers are different from adults because their brains haven’t fully developed and thus lack impulse control and judgment.
Two years ago in Graham v. Florida, which involved life without parole sentences for juveniles in crimes other than homicide, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion:
“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”
At a TED talk earlier this month, Stevenson spoke in one of their most highly praised talks and received one of their biggest receptions ever at that intellectually luminous event.
He said that if we don’t talk about our worst problems, such as what we are doing when we say some children are ‘devils,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘predators,’ irredeemable ‘other,’ America’s very identity is at risk:
“If we don’t care about these things, then the positive things we believe are implicated too. Our hopeful, forward-looking realities are always shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. Don’t always just be attentive to the bright and dazzling things but also to the dark and depressing things.”
We live in a country that embraced slavery, he said, where after reconstruction and through Jim Crow a huge part of the population was subject to terrorism, to constant threats of being lynched and fire-bombed. But we don’t like to talk about it:
“We don’t understand what it is to have done what we’ve done.”
In South Africa, after apartheid ended, there was an extended process of truth and reconciliation, but here in America, at the end of slavery nor after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: nothing.
Stevenson gave a lecture in Germany and someone said to him, “We can never have the death penalty in Germany…. There is no way, with our history, we could engage in the systematic execution of human beings. It would be unconscionable.”
Imagine if in Germany today there was a death row, and that Jewish people were systematically more likely to be convicted. And yet here in this country, in the states of the Old South, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white, and 22 times more likely if the defendant is black.
He told the story of how in the middle of a case where a judge ruled that a 14-year-old was fit to stand trial as an adult he wondered, “How can a judge turn a child into an adult? The judge must have magic powers.” So, late at night and very tired, he worked on a motion to ask that his 14-year-old poor black male client be tried as a wealthy privileged 70-year-old white male. He wrote a searing critique and went to bed. He woke up and realized: he’d hit Send.
Months later, he went to court, wondering what the judge would say. On the way there he met a janitor, who found out he was a lawyer. The janitor hugged him and said he was proud of him. Then Stevenson went into court, and the judge was furious. Inside the court, people were angry: “Angry that we were talking about race, and poverty, and inequality.”
The janitor had come in and sat behind him, and at recess a deputy demanded to know what a janitor was doing there. The janitor replied, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.’”
Today, Stevenson wants to tell us, “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.
Watch Bryan Stevenson’s compelling TED Talk:
Picture of Bryan Stevenson, source TED Talks