As the Nov. 10 capital murder trial of Lee Boyd Malvo approaches, opponents of executing criminals who were younger than 18 when they killed and advocates for allowing the death penalty for juvenile killers are renewing their debate.
"I think this is a strong case for the difference between an adult and a juvenile," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
"One of the things about juveniles is that they are often led by older other people who may influence them," Dieter said.
Older teen-agers may look like "full-sized people," he said, but they are not intellectually or emotionally mature and remain dependent on adults.
For months leading up to the trial, Malvo's defense team has depicted the Jamaican-born youth as "under the spell" of John Allen Muhammad, 42. The elder sniper suspect is on trial in Virginia Beach for capital murder in another of the 10 Washington-area sniper killings.
"The bond was father-son, but maybe it was jailer-inmate in a way. You do things to survive," Dieter said.
In African countries besieged by civil war, for example, youngsters have been indoctrinated to kill and rape by armies providing them with food, shelter and a gun, he said.
But those who argue that execution should be available for people who kill as juveniles say some crimes are so awful that prosecutors and juries should not be limited by a convicted killer's age. Age - emotional, intellectual and chronological - is among factors presented to a jury weighing life or death.
"This certainly is a crime that qualifies for it," said Michael Rushford, president of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, based in California.
"I look at the crime more than I try to analyze the individual," Rushford said.
Maryland is among 28 states that do not allow execution of juvenile killers, making the death penalty impossible for Malvo in the state where most of the sniper killings occurred.
Instead, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent the cases to Virginia, saying it offered "the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties."
Second to Texas in overall executions, Virginia has executed three juvenile killers since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Another is on death row.
Legal experts say the jarring nature of the crime, often combined with past crimes and a lack of compelling reasons to spare the killer, typically leads a jury to choose the death penalty for a juvenile offender. Because of that, lawyers said, Malvo's attorneys have a tough job.
"Does it get any worse than premeditated, deliberate killings of innocent people who were doing nothing more than pumping gas or mowing a lawn?" said William C. Mulford II, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney in Annapolis.
"In looking at those circumstances in which juveniles have received the death penalty, they generally seem to involve particularly heinous crimes," said Michael O'Neill, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
The first person executed in Virginia since 1976 for a murder committed while a juvenile was Dwayne Allen Wright, in 1998. He was 17 when he went on a rampage in 1989 that claimed three lives.