U.S. News

Supreme Court strikes down death penalty for child rape

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court in a major capital punishment decision struck down on Wednesday the death penalty for child rape, its first ruling in more than 30 years on whether a crime other than murder can be punished by execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a file photo. The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday the death penalty cannot be imposed for child rape, its first decision in more than 30 years on whether a crime other than murder can be punished by execution. REUTERS/File

The nation’s highest court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the death penalty for the crime of raping a child violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Constitution barred a state from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child when the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death.

He said a national consensus exists against capital punishment for the crime of child rape and that the death penalty, based on current evolving standards, should be reserved for the worst crimes that take the victim’s life.

“When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint,” he wrote.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said the “ruling is an assault on law enforcement’s efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama said he disagreed with the ruling.

“Had the Supreme Court said, ‘We want to constrain the abilities of states to do this to make sure that it’s done in a careful and appropriate way,’ that would have been one thing. But it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision,” Obama told a news conference in Chicago.

The ruling was a victory for Patrick Kennedy, 43, of Louisiana, who challenged his death sentence after being convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998.

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 ones who did not commit murder.

The Supreme Court last ruled on the death penalty and rape in 1977, when it outlawed executions in a case in which the victim was an adult woman. It declared the death penalty an excessive penalty for a rapist who does not take a human life.

That decision left open whether the death penalty could be imposed for child rape. The Louisiana law, adopted in 1995, allows the death penalty for those convicted of rape of a child under the age of 12. It was later amended to change the age to 13.


Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have similar laws. The last execution in the United States for rape occurred 44 years ago.

Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote on the closely divided court, was joined by the court’s liberals -- Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The court’s conservatives -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both appointed by President George W. Bush, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- dissented.

Alito criticized the court’s decision.

He said it means the death penalty would be barred “no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be.”

He added, “I have little doubt that in the eyes of ordinary Americans, the very worst child rapists ... are the epitome of moral depravity.”

Attorneys for the Louisiana man had said the death penalty for rape was allowed in only a handful of countries.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had 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.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said: “I am outraged by the Supreme Court’s decision. It is an affront to the people of Louisiana and the jury’s unanimous decision in this case.”

Jindal, who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for McCain, said, “The Supreme Court is dead wrong.”

Editing by Deborah Charles and Peter Cooney