When he was 17, George W. Bush
was happily ensconced at Andover. At
the exclusive prep school north of Boston, Bush played baseball, basketball, football, was
elected head of the stick ball league and became the school's head cheerleader.
Now, as governor and leading presidential contender, Bush will decide the fate of Glen
Charles McGinnis, a black man who committed murder when he was 17. On Aug. 1, 1990,
McGinnis, who had previously spent time in juvenile custody for auto theft and other crimes,
took his mother's .25 caliber pistol and walked into Wilkins Cleaners & Laundry in Conroe,
Texas. McGinnis robbed and then shot 30-year-old Leta Ann Wilkerson, once in the head and
three times in the back. Two years later, he was found guilty of capital murder. He is
scheduled to die by lethal injection on Jan. 25.
The facts of McGinnis' crime resemble the deeds perpetrated by many other inmates on Texas'
death row. But because he was 17 at the time of the murder, McGinnis' case is placing the
spotlight on Bush's attitude toward the death penalty and his position on several
international standards on human rights. Every developed nation in the world prohibits the
execution of juvenile offenders, and several international treaties prohibit the practice.
The American Bar Association and Amnesty International have both appealed to Bush, asking
him to commute McGinnis' sentence. That doesn't appear likely.
On the campaign trail and as governor, Bush has rarely discussed the death penalty. But
during his tenure, Bush has overseen far more
executions than any other governor in modern American history. During his tenure, 112
men and one woman have been executed. That's nearly 20 percent of the 600 people who have
been executed in the United States since 1976. Two of the men executed during Bush's tenure
-- Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter, both of whom were executed in 1998 -- were 17 at the
time of their crimes.
Scott McClellan, a spokesman for Bush's presidential campaign, said the issue was not a
campaign issue and referred calls to the governor's press office at the Texas Capitol.
Michael Jones, a state employee at Bush's press office, said Bush "supports the laws that we
have here in Texas and whose legality has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court." Jones
added that Bush cannot commute McGinnis' sentence without the recommendation from the
majority of the members of the state's board of pardons and paroles. Officials at the board
have received a plea for clemency from McGinnis' lawyers and have begun reviewing it.
While Bush's spokesmen lob the death penalty issue back and forth, opponents of execution
for juveniles are trying to apply political pressure. In a Dec. 10, 1999 letter,
American Bar Association president William G. Paul asked Bush to spare McGinnis' life. The
"execution of people for crimes they committed while children is unacceptable in a civilized
society, irrespective of guilt or innocence. Executing this young man, and others who are on
death row for their crimes committed as children, serves no principled purpose and only
demeans our system of justice," Paul said. But if the Pope was unable to sway the governor
to commute the death sentence of Karla Faye Tucker, there's no reason to think a group of
trial lawyers will fare any better.
McGinnis, whose mother was a prostitute and a drug addict, is one of 26 death row inmates in
Texas who were 17 at the time of their offense. Fourteen other states also have death row
inmates who committed their crimes while juveniles. In all, the United States has 69 inmates
awaiting their dates with death who were either 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes. And
while Texas has far more juveniles on death row than any other state, Virginia is also
facing controversy over the juvenile execution issue.
On Monday, Virginia executed Douglas Christopher Thomas, a murderer who shot his
girlfriend's parents when he was 17. On Thursday the state plans to execute
Steve Edward Roach, who was 17 when he killed his 70-year-old neighbor.
McGinnis' attorney, Ross D'Emanuele, contends that McGinnis was not given fair treatment
during the sentencing phase of his trial. D'Emanuele, a Minneapolis attorney who will
file a brief in Texas courts this week in an effort to halt the execution of his client,
said that jurors were prevented from hearing the testimony of a psychologist who had
According to D'Emanuele, the psychologist found that McGinnis did not intend to harm or
hurt anyone, would not pose a future danger to society and that he would do well in a
structured environment. D'Emanuele said he has never questioned whether or not McGinnis
committed the crime. "Our concern is with the sentencing phase of the trial. That's where
the testimony of the psychologist would have been helpful."
D'Emanuele is hoping that Texas courts will respond to his arguments regarding international
law, and he quickly ticks off all of the treaties that prohibit the execution of offenders
under the age of 18: the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N.
Convention on the Rights of the Child and the American Convention on Human Rights.
In 1977, the United States signed the ICCPR. But the Senate refused to agree to the treaty's
prohibition on executions of offenders who commit crimes while under age 18. The Convention
on the Rights of the Child has become an accepted part of international law. However, two
nations have still not signed the document: Somalia and the United States. The American Convention on
Human Rights was finally ratified by the Organization of American States in 1969. It says
that capital punishment "shall not be imposed upon persons who, at the time the crime was
committed, were under 18 years of age."
Amnesty International has also weighed in on the issue juvenile executions. In a press
release issued on Jan. 7, the human rights organization said that only four other
countries, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, still execute people for crimes
committed while they were children. "The United States has executed 10 child offenders in
the last decade, more than the rest of the world combined," says Amnesty International. "The
four child offenders executed worldwide since 1997 were all killed in the U.S."
While human rights organizations are pushing Bush to spare McGinnis' life, prosecutors and
the National Association for Crime Victims Rights are reminding citizens about McGinnis'
crime, not his age. Michael McDougal, the district attorney in Montgomery County where
McGinnis committed the murder, says he has personal reservations about meting out the death
penalty to 17-year-olds. But he said that Texas law allows the practice and that the issue
should be dealt with by the Texas Legislature, not Bush.
Personal reservations aside, McDougal believes McGinnis must be punished for his deed.
McDougal points out that McGinnis was considered a repeat offender by Texas officials and
that he committed the murder in Conroe less than a week after he got deferred adjudication
in another crime. "In that case he ran over a driver after he attempted to take her car.
With all that in there, I didn't feel it was a case that needed to be reconsidered," he
said. "And the facts in this case are bad. When you shoot somebody four times that's not any
kind of mistake. That's being cold-blooded and not caring about human life at all. That
warrants the death penalty whether McGinnis is 17 or 45 or 50."
Raymond Montee of the National Association for Crime Victim Rights recently told the
Orlando Sentinel that compassion for the juvenile murderers is misplaced. "Did they show
compassion when they killed?" Montee asked. "If they've got a gun in their hand or a knife
at your throat, what difference does it make how old they are?"
While Montee and others press for the execution of McGinnis and other juveniles, some ardent
death penalty supporters are having second thoughts. Jim Mattox, a Democrat who served two
terms as Texas Attorney General and oversaw more than 30 executions (none of them were
juveniles) believes that Texas needs to re-examine the juvenile execution issue. Mattox
believes Bush should "step in" to save McGinnis from the death chamber. "I don't think we
ought to be executing juveniles," Mattox said. "That's just the bottom line."