WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Friday it would decide whether the death penalty can be imposed for the crime of raping a child, expanding its review of how capital punishment is carried out in the United States.
The highest U.S. court agreed to hear an appeal by a Louisiana man who is the only person in the United States on death row for a crime other than murder. He is arguing the death penalty for child rape violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision to rule on the issue came just three days before the Supreme Court hears one of the most important death penalty cases in years over a challenge to the lethal injection method of execution used across the United States.
Monday’s arguments will be the first time in more than a century that the high court will consider the legality of a method of execution. Executions across the country have come to a halt since the court agreed to decide the issue in late September.
Attorneys for the Louisiana death row inmate, Patrick Kennedy, who was convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998, said the Louisiana Supreme Court erred in upholding the death penalty for child rape.
“It flouts the overwhelming national consensus that capital punishment is an inappropriate penalty for any kind of rape,” they said in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Kennedy’s attorneys also argued the Louisiana law is unconstitutional because it failed to guide juries in differentiating between child rapes that deserve capital punishment and those that do not.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the death penalty for the rape of an adult was “grossly disproportionate” and “excessive punishment” under the U.S. Constitution. But the ruling left open whether child rapists can be sentenced to death.
Kennedy’s attorneys cited the 1977 ruling in arguing that the death penalty is constitutionally excessive punishment for crimes that do not result in the victim’s death.
One attorney, Jelpi Picou of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, said Kennedy was the first person sentenced to death for rape in more than 30 years.
“By authorizing the death penalty for non-homicide rape of a child, Louisiana joins the ranks of such countries as Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Kazakhstan and China,” he said in a statement after the Supreme Court agreed to decide the case.
“While the vast majority of the world’s developed countries have moved toward narrowing the use of capital punishment over the previous decades, Louisiana has chosen to expand it significantly,” Picou said.
Louisiana said five other states — Montana, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas — have adopted similar laws that allow the death penalty for child rape.
There has not been an execution for rape in the United Sates since 1964, and no one has been executed for a crime that did not involve murder since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Louisiana in 1995 adopted a law that made rape a crime that can be punished by death when the victim was under 12 years of age. The law was later amended to change the age to 13.
The Supreme Court most likely will hear arguments in the case in April, with a decision expected by the end of June.
Reporting by James Vicini, editing by David Alexander and Doina Chiacu