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Ban death penalty for those 21 or younger, ABA House says

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

The ABA House of Delegates on Monday asked all death penalty jurisdictions to ban capital punishment for any offender who committed their crime at the age of 21 or younger.

In the report accompanying the resolution, the chairs of the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice wrote: “In light of this evolution of both the scientific and legal understanding surrounding young criminal defendants and broader changes to the death penalty landscape, it is now time for the ABA to revise its dated position and support the exclusion of individuals who were 21 years old or younger at the time of their crime. ”The language of Resolution 111 makes clear that the ABA is not taking a position “supporting or opposing the death penalty.”

In a motion to amend, Robert L. Weinberg, a past president of the District of Columbia Bar and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, proposed removing that language. He brought up a CLE session held earlier during this midyear meeting by Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.

“We stand almost alone among the progressive democracies in adhering to capital punishment,” he said.

He urged the ABA to take up a future resolution taking a position on capital punishment, specifically for abolition. He said including language about the ABA’s lack of position on the death penalty in the current resolution was not necessary.

Michael Byowitz, the Board of Governors’ liaison to the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, rose to speak in opposition to Weinberg’s amendment.

“I do so with some trepidation and sadness, because Bob Weinberg is a personal hero of mine,” Byowitz said. “My heart pulls me in the direction he would have us go, but my head pulls me in a different direction.”

Byowitz said marginal efforts chipping away at the use of the death penalty are the most effective ways of addressing the problem.

“We will be ignored if we are perceived in many of the councils that matter as against the death penalty,” he said. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Former ABA President James Silkenat and several others voiced support of bringing a future resolution before the ABA House of Delegates taking a stance on capital punishment, but urged the delegates to reject the current amendment.

“I strongly oppose capital punishment, but this amendment is the wrong way to do it,” Silkenat said.

The amendment was defeated in a divided vote. Resolution 111 was passed overwhelmingly.

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