J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

Supreme Court Says Death Penalty Unconstitutional in Child Rape Cases

June 25, 2008 04:55 PM
by Cara McDonough
The court overturned a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which had held that, short of first-degree murder, no crime more deserves the death penalty.

30-Second Summary

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today that sentencing someone to death for raping a child is unconstitutional, assuming the victim is not killed.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer voted in favor of the measure.

“The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,” and thus violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion of the court. Kennedy wrote that the Eighth Amendment draws its meaning from “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and that the small number of states that favored the death penalty in child rape cases proved the lack of a “national consensus” in support of it.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who dissented along with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that he lamented the court’s decision to rule out the death penalty “no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped … no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be.”

The Court banned the death penalty in rape cases in 1977, and not since 1964 has anyone been sentenced to death for a crime other than murder, but over the past 13 years “several states have reacted to public outrage over crimes against children by amending their statutes to make the rape of a child punishable by death,” reports The New York Times. Louisiana was the first state to do so.

Lawyers for Patrick Kennedy, accused of raping and badly injuring his 8-year-old stepdaughter in Louisiana in 1998, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case last year, which resulted in the ruling Wednesday. The case will now be returned to Louisiana for resentencing.

The state law that had enabled judges to sentence Kennedy to death was enacted in 1995 and allows for the death sentence in rape cases involving children under 12 years old.

Headline Link: ‘Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty for Child Rape’

Background: Louisiana’s ruling; Supreme Court bans death penalty in rape cases

Analysis: The death penalty’s implications in child rape cases

Reference: The Kennedy decision; the Supreme Court


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