WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court this week hears arguments about whether the death penalty can be imposed for child rape, taking up for the first time in more than 30 years whether a crime other than murder can be punished by execution.
The nation's highest court has set arguments on Wednesday on whether the death penalty for the crime of raping a child represents unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
It will be the second major death penalty case heard this year. In January, the justices considered the current lethal three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions.
A ruling is expected by late June on the challenge by two Kentucky death row inmates who argued the lethal injection method violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment by inflicting needless pain and suffering.
Executions in the United States last year fell to a 13-year low of 42, and have been temporarily halted since the Supreme Court agreed in late September to decide the lethal injection case.
The Supreme Court's review of death penalty-related cases comes amid a growing nationwide debate on capital punishment itself in one of the few democracies that still permit it.
The case involved an appeal by Patrick Kennedy of Louisiana, who was convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter and sentenced to death.
Of the more than 3,300 inmates on death row in America, Kennedy and another man convicted of child rape in Louisiana are the only two who did not commit murder.
The last execution in the United States for rape occurred 44 years ago.
AGE AT ISSUE
In 1977, the Supreme Court banned executions for rape in a case in which the victim was an adult woman but left open whether child rapists can be sentenced to death.
The Louisiana law was adopted in 1995. In its current version, rape can be punished by death when the victim was under 13 years of age.
At least four other states -- Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas -- have similar laws.
Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford University law professor representing Kennedy, argued that the U.S. Constitution bars imposing the death penalty for rape, regardless of the victim's age.
"Society views capital punishment as excessive punishment for child rape," Fisher said, citing a national consensus and international norms.
"Today no Western nation authorizes the death penalty for any kind of rape," Fisher said, adding that it is allowed in only a handful of countries, including China, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Juliet Clark, an assistant district attorney in Louisiana, said the death penalty represented a constitutional punishment for raping a child.
"Public outrage over the sexual violation of immature young children by predatory adults is extremely great due to the recognition that these offenders target and harm the most vulnerable members of our society," she said.
She said 14 states and the federal government authorize the death penalty for various offenses other than murder, such as treason, espionage, kidnapping and aircraft hijacking.
Nine states, led by Texas, supported Louisiana, while the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund supported Kennedy.
The two rights groups said a historical consensus existed against the death penalty for rape in the United States, except for Southern states willing in the past to execute blacks, especially those convicted of raping white women and children.
Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University, said moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy may hold the decisive vote on the court closely divided between conservatives and liberals.
Kennedy wrote the court's majority opinion in 2005 that abolished the death penalty for juveniles and he joined the majority opinion in 2002 that barred executions of mentally retarded criminals.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)