Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Court Rejects Death Penalty For Child Rapists

We've been waiting for this one since January, when cert was granted (my previous posts on this case here and here).

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday outlawed executions of people convicted of raping a child.

In a 5-4 vote, the court said the Louisiana law allowing the death penalty to be imposed in such cases violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

''The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,'' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. His four liberal colleagues joined him, while the four more conservative justices dissented.

The court struggled over how to apply standards laid out in decisions barring executions for the mentally retarded and people younger than 18 when they committed murder. In those cases, the court cited trends in the states away from capital punishment.

In this case, proponents of the Louisiana law said the trend was toward the death penalty, a point mentioned by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissent.

''The harm that is caused to the victims and to society at large by the worst child rapists is grave,'' Alito wrote. ''It is the judgment of the Louisiana lawmakers and those in an increasing number of other states that these harms justify the death penalty.''
Writing for the majority (Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg & Breyer) Justice Kennedy noted that not only is there a clear "national consensus" against imposing the death penalty for this crime (via legislative action, a key factor in the Trop test), but the nature of the victimization would lead to other undesirable consequences:
"Society’s desire to inflict death for child rape by enlisting the child victim to assist it over the course of years in asking for capital punishment forces a moral choice on the child, who is not of mature age to make that choice. There are also relevant systemic concerns in prosecuting child rape, including the documented problem of unreliable, induced, and even imagined child testimony, which creates a “special risk of wrongful execution” in some cases. Cf. Atkins, supra, at 321. As to deterrence, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may not result in more effective enforcement, but may add to the risk of nonreporting of child rape out of fear of negative consequences for the perpetrator, especially if he is a family member. And, by in effect making the punishment for child rape and murder equivalent, a State may remove a strong incentive for the rapist not to kill his victim."
Writing for the dissent (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, C.J. and Alito) Justice Alito summarizes thusly:
(1) This holding is not supported by the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment; (2) neither Coker nor any other prior precedent commands this result; (3) there are no reliable “objective indicia” of a “national consensus” in support of the Court’s position; (4) sustaining the constitutionality of the state law before us would not “extend” or “expand” the death penalty; (5) this Court has previously rejected the proposition that the Eighth Amendment is a one-way ratchet that prohibits legislatures from adopting new capital punishment statutes to meet new problems; (6) the worst child rapists exhibit the epitome of moral depravity; and (7) child rape inflicts grievous injury on victims and on society in general.
Obviously, one can find sustenance for your beliefs (for or against the death penalty) in these opinions, but as of today, the Court slammed the door on allowing the death penalty for child rapists. "The 8th amendment bars [states] from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death."

SCOTUSblog has more. The case is Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008).

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