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BYLINE: By Saundra Saperstein, Washington Post Staff Writer
Md. Court Says Juveniles Can Be Executed
The Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday ruled for the first time that
Maryland may impose the death penalty on criminals who
were under 18 years old when they committed murder. The court asserted that such a sentence does not violate the
Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling came in the case of James Russell Trimble, who was four months
shy of 18 when he murdered a young woman in
Baltimore County with a baseball bat after he and an accomplice had raped her on July 3, 1981.
Legal experts said they were not sure whether the issue of executing
juveniles has been taken up by the top appeals court in any
other state. The Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue, though Trimble's lawyers said yesterday they plan to file an appeal
there within 60 days.
Yesterday's opinion, which was unanimous on this point, stated that
"a particularly heinous act can take the juvenile outside the
protective umbrella of the juvenile justice system. We believe that just such a crime was committed here . . . . It was a cold,
brutal act of repeated and sadistic violence."
The ruling brought a swift reaction from the American Civil Liberties
Union's Capital Punishment Project, whose director said he
"deeply deplores the notion that we can execute children."
Attorney Henry Schwarzschild added that he does not "for one moment
diminish the horrendousness of the crime involved," but
that he believes that "a civilized, rational, humane society" should be "above the lawful homicide of children."
Since 1973, when states began passing death penalty statutes to comply
with a Supreme Court ruling, 37 youths who were
under 18 at the time of their crimes have been sentenced to death, according to a spokesman for the NAACP's Capital
Punishment Project. None has been executed, but some of the cases are still under appeal, according to Richard Brody.
In Virginia, the law does not specifically permit or prohibit the execution
of juveniles, and there are no inmates on death row who
were sentenced for crimes committed when they were under 18, according to a spokesman for the state attorney general's
office. The District of Columbia has no death penalty.
In its ruling, the Maryland court emphasized that it was not holding
that the death penalty is "constitutionally permissible" for all
juveniles or setting an age limit below which the death penalty may not be imposed.
"We simply hold that on the facts of this case, Trimble's age -- 17
years and 8 months -- does not engage the Eighth Amendment
as a shield to capital punishment," Judge Harry A. Cole wrote for the court. The opinion said the court would take "a
case-by-case approach" to the issue.
Nevertheless, attorneys on both sides of the Trimble case -- Assistant
Attorney General Deborah Chasanow and Assistant
Public Defender George Burns Jr. -- said the ruling is significant. "The issue is: Can you ever execute someone who committed a
crime when under 18?" said Burns. "They say, 'Yes you can.' "
Noting that the Maryland legislature has not specifically prohibited
the death penalty for juveniles and that statutes in 29 states
permit the execution of juveniles, the judges held that "contemporary society has not rejected capital punishment for juveniles."
The court also ruled that the death penalty in this case "serves society's weighty interests in retribution and deterrence."
"Imposition of the death penalty in this instance will send a message
to others contemplating similar acts that society will respond
harshly to their actions," Cole wrote. "In short, we believe that 17-year-old youths can be deterred from committing brutal
rape-murders . . . . "
One other inmate among the 14 on Maryland's death row was sentenced
for a crime committed before he was 18, according to
Burns. The case of Lawrence Johnson, who was convicted of strangling a 78-year-old woman during a robbery in Baltimore
County, is on appeal to the state's highest court, Burns said.
Copyright 1984 The Washington Post