Washington, Oct. 21--(AP) The Supreme Court, which recently abolished executions for the mentally retarded, was bitterly divided Monday in refusing to consider also ending the execution of killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.

Four justices said the court should continue a reexamination of the death penalty begun in earnest last year. But the court passed up a chance to reopen the question of whether executing very young killers violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Currently, states that allow the death penalty may impose it on killers who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes.

The dissenting justices called it a "shameful practice." "The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The court refused to hear the case of a Kentucky man sentenced to death for abducting, sodomizing and killing a gas station attendant when he was 17. The body of the 20-year-old victim was left sprawled over the rear seat of her mother's car, with her jeans and underwear pulled to her ankles. She had been shot in the face. Prosecutors said Kevin Nigel Stanford bragged about what he and two other teenagers had done.

Stanford, now 39, has been on death row since 1982. In 1989, the high court used Stanford's case to uphold juvenile executions.

Only the United States and a handful of other countries allow execution of juvenile killers, and Stanford's lawyers argued that such executions violate not only the Constitution but an international treaty signed by the United States.

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