Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty for Child Rape, law homework help

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Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty for Child Rape

— The death penalty is unconstitutional as a punishment for the rape of
a child, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

5-to-4 decision overturned death penalty laws in Louisiana and five
other states. The only two men in the country who have been sentenced to
death for the crime of child rape, both in Louisiana, will receive new
sentences of life without parole.

The court went beyond the
question in the case to rule out the death penalty for any individual
crime — as opposed to “offenses against the state,” such as treason or
espionage — “where the victim’s life was not taken.”

Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said there was “a
distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and
non-homicide crimes against individual persons,” even such “devastating”
crimes as the rape of a child, on the other.

The decision was
the third in the last six years to place a categorical limitation on
capital punishment. In 2002, the court barred the execution of mentally
retarded defendants. In 2005, it ruled that the Constitution bars the
death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18.

despite this trend toward narrowing the application of the death
penalty, there was no suggestion from the majority that the court was
moving toward the abolition of capital punishment, which Justice John
Paul Stevens called for in an opinion two months ago that no other
justice joined.

Justice Kennedy said Wednesday that while the
court’s death penalty jurisprudence “remains sound,” it should not be
expanded to cover a crime for which no one has been executed in the
United States for the past 44 years.

The case, Kennedy v.
Louisiana, No. 07-343, was an appeal by one of the two Louisiana
inmates, Patrick Kennedy. He was convicted and sentenced to death in
2003 for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter, whose injuries were severe
enough to require emergency surgery. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld
Mr. Kennedy’s conviction and rejected his challenge to the
constitutionality of his sentence.

The United States Supreme
Court prohibited capital punishment for rape in a 1977 case, Coker v.
Georgia, in which the victim, while only 16 years old, was married and
had the legal status of an adult. It was not clear at the time whether
that decision was limited to the rape of an adult woman, or whether it
barred the death penalty for any rape. The court on Wednesday treated
the issue of capital punishment for child rape as a fresh question, not
governed by any existing precedent. As a matter of constitutional
analysis, the question in the case was whether the death penalty was so
disproportionate to the offense as to amount to cruel and unusual
punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The court’s modern
precedents interpret the Eighth Amendment according to “the evolving
standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

that benchmark, Justice Kennedy said the majority had reached its
conclusion based on “our own independent judgment” about the
implications of extending the death penalty to child rape as well as on
the fact that the great majority of states have declined to do so.

Louisiana law extending the death penalty to the rape of children under
the age of 12 dates to 1995. The states that followed were Georgia,
Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Unlike Louisiana, those
states all require that a defendant have a previous rape conviction or
some other aggravating factor in order to be subject to the death
penalty, and no one has yet been sentenced to death under any of the

Justice Kennedy said there was thus a national consensus against applying capital punishment for the crime.

a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. sharply disputed this
conclusion. He said that because many judges and lawyers had
interpreted the 1977 Coker decision as barring capital punishment for
any rape, state legislatures “have operated under the ominous shadow” of
that decision “and thus have not been free to express their own
understanding of our society’s standards of decency.”

The fact
that six states in modern times have nonetheless enacted such laws,
Justice Alito said, “might represent the beginning of a new evolutionary
line” that “would not be out of step with changes in our society’s
thinking since Coker was decided.” He said there were abundant
indications that society had become more aware of and concerned about
sex crimes against children.

Those who voted with Justice Kennedy
in the majority were Justice Stevens and Justices David H. Souter, Ruth
Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer. Chief Justice John G. Roberts
Jr. joined the dissent, along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence

Addressing the separate question of the court’s “own
judgment,” Justice Kennedy suggested that the flow of death penalty
cases for child rape could overwhelm the country’s criminal justice
system. He noted that in 2005 there were 5,702 reported rapes of
children under the age of 12.

“In this context, which involves a
crime that in many cases will overwhelm a decent person’s judgment,”
Justice Kennedy said, “we have no confidence that the imposition of the
death penalty would not be so arbitrary as to be freakish.”

continued: “We cannot sanction this result when the harm to the victim,
though grave, cannot be quantified in the same way as death of the

Justice Kennedy also said capital punishment for child
rape presented specific problems, including the “special risks of
unreliable testimony” by children and the fact that the crime often
occurs within families. Families might be inclined to “shield the
perpetrator from discovery” when the penalty is death, he said, leading
to an increase in the problem of under-reporting of these crimes.

Alito, in his dissenting opinion, said these concerns were “policy
arguments” that were “simply not pertinent to the question whether the
death penalty is ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.” He said the Eighth
Amendment “does not authorize this court to strike down federal or state
criminal laws on the ground that they are not in the best interests of
crime victims or the broader society.”

Both presidential
candidates criticized the death penalty decision. Senator John McCain,
the presumptive Republican nominee, said: “That there is a judge
anywhere in America who does not believe that the rape of a child
represents the most heinous of crimes, which is deserving of the most
serious of punishments, is profoundly disturbing” He called the decision
“an assault on law enforcement’s efforts to punish these heinous felons
for the most despicable crime.”

Senator Barack Obama, the
presumptive Democratic nominee, said, “I think that the rape of a small
child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a
decision under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, that the
death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that does not violate
our Constitution.” He added that the Supreme Court should have set
conditions for imposing the death penalty for the crime, “but it
basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

a second decision on Wednesday, the court ruled that the introduction
at trial of statements that a murder victim had made to the police
violated the constitutional rights of the man who was on trial for
killing her.

Before her death, the victim had summoned the police
to complain that Dwayne Giles, later charged with her murder, had
threatened to kill her. Writing for the court, Justice Scalia said that
use of the statement violated Mr. Giles’s Sixth Amendment right to
cross-examine the witnesses against him, unless the prosecution could
first prove that he deliberately killed a witness was to make her
unavailable to testify. Mr. Giles claimed self-defense in the killing.

vote in the case, Giles v. California, No. 07-6053, was 6 to 3.
Justices Breyer, Stevens, and Kennedy dissented. The decision overturned
a ruling by the California Supreme Court, which had affirmed Mr.
Giles’s murder conviction, but left the state free to try and prove the
necessary intent.

Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty for Child Rape,,… (last visited March 9, 2010).

Giles v. California, 554 US 353 (2008)

Do you agree with the ruling? Why or why not? Your response should
contain analysis of the law. All citations must be in Bluebook format.

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