Kenneth Laird will likely die in prison, but not by lethal injection. A U.S. Supreme Court split decision spared Laird, three other Arizona death row inmates and about 68 others nationwide Tuesday, banning the death penalty for teenage killers.
"It's a great day for the Constitution," said Dale Baich, who heads the Federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit in Phoenix. "Clearly the court recognizes society has evolved to a point that we will no longer tolerate the execution of juveniles."
The 5-4 decision, which said the executions violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, also takes the death penalty off the table for four first-degree murder cases pending trial in Maricopa County Superior Court. The defendants were 16 when the crimes happened.
"The courts still have options when sentencing juveniles who commit murder, including sentencing someone to a natural life sentence, which is a life sentence with no possibility of parole or release," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. Assistant attorney general Kent Cattani, chief counsel over capital litigation, said each of the four men will have to be resentenced for their murder convictions.
In Laird's case, Judge Gregory Martin of Maricopa County Superior Court also sentenced him to 129 years in prison for other crimes associated with the death of Wanda Starnes, a 37-year-old Cave Creek nurse. The state convinced a jury in 1994 that Laird strangled Starnes by using a ligature that he tightened with a screwdriver. Laird's motive was to steal her Toyota 4-wheel drive truck that he coveted, according to court records. "Kenny has always been adamant that although he was in her home, he was not the one who actually committed her murder," said Sylvia Lett, Laird's attorney.
While Laird was 17 at the time of Starnes’ death, he had the mental capacity of a 11- or 12-year-old, she added.
Keli Luther, an attorney who heads the Crime Victim Legal Assistance Project at Arizona State University, said she has been preparing her clients to expect Tuesday's ruling. "Every death penalty case that has gone up recently has struck down certain provisions," Luther said.
Three years ago, the high court banned executions of the mentally retarded, and in 1988, banned the executions of those 15 and younger. A June 2002 ruling required juries instead of judges to find whether someone is eligible for the death penalty. Under Tuesday's ruling, 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer eligible for execution. ‘‘The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest,’’ Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy said a combination of a national trend towards the abolition of executing juveniles and international opposition to the practice justified the ruling. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer sided with Kennedy. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor sought to uphold the executions.
O'Connor wrote in a separate dissent that while she would set the minimum age for executions at 18 if she were a lawmaker instead of a judge, it is not the place of the court to "substitute its own 'inevitably subjective judgment' on how best to resolve this difficult moral question for the judgments of the nation's democratically elected legislatures."