The Supreme Court declared Wednesday that executions are too severe a punishment for raping children, despite the “years of long anguish” for victims, in a ruling that restricts the death penalty to murder and crimes against the state.
The court's 5-4 decision struck down a Louisiana law that allows capital punishment for people convicted of raping children younger than 12. It spares the only people in the U.S. under sentence of death for that crime – two Louisiana men convicted of raping girls 5 and 8.
The ruling also invalidates laws on the books in five other states – including South Carolina – that allowed executions for child rape that does not result in the death of the victim.
However devastating the crime to children, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, “the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child.” His four liberal colleagues joined him, while the four more conservative justices dissented.
There has not been an execution in the U.S. for a crime that did not also involve the death of the victim in 44 years, a factor that weighed in Kennedy's decision.
Rape and other crimes “may be as devastating in their harm, as here, but ‘in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public,' they cannot be compared to murder in their ‘severity and irrevocability,'” Kennedy said, quoting from earlier decisions.
The victim in the case decided Wednesday was an 8-year-old girl raped by her stepfather at their home in Harvey, La., outside New Orleans.
Angry Louisianans who backed the law said the court was out of touch.
“The opinion reads more like an out-of-control legislative debate than a constitutional analysis,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. “One thing is clear: The five members of the court who issued the opinion do not share the same ‘standards of decency' as the people of Louisiana.”
The decision resonated in the presidential campaign, too, where Democrat Barack Obama objected to it. Obama said there should be no blanket prohibition of the death penalty for the rape of children if states want to apply it in those cases.
The decision allows death sentences to continue to be imposed for crimes such as treason, espionage and terrorism, which Kennedy labeled as crimes against the state.
The Supreme Court banned executions for rape in 1977 in a case in which the victim was an adult woman.
Forty-four states prohibit the death penalty for any kind of rape, and five states besides Louisiana have allowed it for child rapists – Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.