Supreme Court sharply limits use of death penalty
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices decide child rape isn't a capital offense.
Sentencing a child rapist to death is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment.Skip to next paragraph
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In a major ruling sharply restricting crimes carrying potential death sentences, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated part of a Louisiana statute that made aggravated sexual assault against a child under 12 a capital offense.
The majority justices ruled 5 to 4 that capital punishment is constitutionally impermissible for person-on-person violent crime that does not result in the death of the victim. The case is Kennedy v. Louisiana.
"The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
The Eighth Amendment must reflect the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Justice Kennedy said. He added that a national consensus had emerged against capital punishment for child rape.
The decision won immediate praise from capital-punishment opponents. "The court's decision wisely rejects the dramatic expansion of capital punishment that would undermine the long-standing principle of civilized societies that reserves the ultimate penalty for those who commit the most heinous murders," said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a Washington-based legal-research group.
She said expansion of the death penalty beyond murder "would have exacerbated the already intolerable level of error at the expense of both crime victims and those wrongly accused of these terrible acts."
The decision clarifies a question left open in a 1977 case, Coker v. Georgia, in which the high court invalidated a death sentence for a man who had raped a 16-year-old married woman. The justices said capital punishment was disproportionate to the crime.
Many legal analysts said the court had drawn a bright line forbidding the death penalty in all cases that did not result in the death of the victim.
But other analysts suggested that the 1977 case held only that the circumstances of most rapes of adult women do not rise to a level justifying capital punishment. In contrast, the aggravated rape of a young child can be as bad as murder, they said.
On Wednesday, the majority justices disagreed. "The incongruity between the crime of child rape and the harshness of the death penalty poses risks of overpunishment and counsels against a constitutional ruling that the death penalty can be expanded to include this offense," Kennedy wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the majority justices were usurping the work of state lawmakers. "The harm that is caused to the victims and to society at large by the worst child rapists is grave. It is the judgment of the Louisiana lawmakers and those in an increasing number of other states that these harms justify the death penalty," he wrote.
"The court provides no cogent explanation why this legislative judgment should be overridden," Justice Alito wrote. "Conclusory references to 'decency,' 'moderation,' 'restraint,' 'full progress,' and 'moral judgment' are not enough."