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Three justices question execution of minors

Rare dissent urges high court to revisit death penalty issue

Three justices question execution of minors

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a rare public dissent on a request for a stay of execution, three U.S. Supreme Court justices -- unable to halt the Wednesday night execution of a convicted Texas killer who was a juvenile when the murder occurred -- are challenging the use of the death penalty in such cases.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer issued statements before Toronto Patterson, 24, was put to death in Huntsville, Texas, by lethal injection. A Supreme Court majority late Wednesday allowed Texas prison officials to proceed.

Patterson was 17 when he was arrested in connection with the slayings of a 25-year-old woman and her children, ages 6 and 3. Patterson insisted he was innocent.

Death penalty foes are campaigning to end the execution of individuals convicted of committing heinous crimes as juveniles. They argue that the youths may have been too immature to understand the gravity of their actions.

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In his statement, Stevens made clear he agrees with that position. Stevens was among four dissenters in a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that states may execute juvenile offenders.

"I joined that [dissenting] opinion and remain convinced that it correctly interpreted the law," Stevens said of the Stanford v. Kentucky decision.

"Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate for the court to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity."

Joined by Breyer, Ginsburg issued a separate brief statement saying it is time to reconsider juvenile executions in light of the high court's ruling last term that declared the execution of mentally retarded killers unconstitutional.

"I think it appropriate to revisit the issue at this time," Ginsburg said.

Dissent of 3 Supreme Court justices: Patterson v. Texas  (FindLaw document, PDF format)

Many death penalty supporters deny a national consensus exists against executing juvenile offenders.

Of the 38 states with the death penalty, 22 allow the execution of offenders who committed capital crimes at 17. Of those states, 17 also allow the execution of offenders who committed capital crimes at 16.



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