By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If convicted teen-age murderer Lee Malvo is sentenced to die for his part in last year's sniper siege in and around the U.S. capital, he would hardly be unique: 82 death row inmates in America were under 18 when their crimes were committed.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that permit the execution of juvenile criminals, and the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center has described the death penalty for youthful offenders as "a uniquely American practice."
"It appears to have been abandoned by nations everywhere else in large part due to the express provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and of several other international treaties and agreements," the center said on its Web site, http://deathpenaltyinfo.org.
The U.N. pact forbids "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of children, including capital punishment or life imprisonment without parole for those under 18.
The United States signed the children's rights convention but has not ratified it, putting it in the same category as Somalia. East Timor, which became a sovereign country only this year, has also not yet signed or ratified the pact.
Since 1990, just seven countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders: Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Only 21 U.S. states -- including Virginia, where Malvo was tried -- allow the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes when they were 16 or 17.
Seventeen other states and the federal government can use capital punishment for those who committed crimes at age 18.
Malvo was 17 when he and his accomplice, John Muhammad, terrorized the Washington area with a string of 13 sniper shootings that killed 10 people in October 2002.
Malvo, now 18, was found guilty of capital murder on Dec. 18 and a jury must now decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
His lawyers argued at trial that he was an impressionable child in thrall to the 42-year-old Muhammad, whom he saw as a father figure. Muhammad was convicted of murder in a separate trial and the jury recommended he receive the death penalty.
Twenty-two U.S. death row inmates have been executed for juvenile crimes in the last three decades, but putting young offenders to death for their crimes has a centuries-long history in North America.
The first juvenile offender was executed in 1642 in Plymouth Colony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Since then, the center said, some 365 people have been executed for juvenile crimes. Twenty-two of these occurred in the last 30 years, most recently last April, when 32-year-old Scott Hain was put to death in Oklahoma for a crime committed when he was 17.