WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 a child rapist may not be executed if he did not kill his victim.
The vote was 5-4 in the case, with Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the high court's four more liberal members in the majority. The decision, issued over a strongly worded dissent from Associate Justice Samuel Alito, invalidated laws in six states that permit capital punishment for child rape.
The case involved the aggravated rape of an 8-year-old girl by her stepfather, Patrick Kennedy. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a jury's sentence of the death penalty for the defendant.
Writing for the majority, Kennedy said the court determined "the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child."
Alito, however, said in his dissent the court's ruling means the death penalty for child rape always is prohibited "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."
Kennedy said the court based its opinion on what he described as a "national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape" and the justices' "independent judgment." He said execution in such a case violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments," and the 14th Amendment, which provides for "due process" and "equal protection" of the law.
"Evolving standards of decency must embrace and express respect for the dignity of the person, and the punishment of criminals must conform to that rule," Kennedy wrote. Following "evolving standards of decency" and the court's precedents, he said, the justices determined "there is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons, even including child rape, on the other."
Those crimes, including the rape of a child, "may be devastating in their harm, as here," but are not comparable to murder in "severity and irrevocability," Kennedy wrote, using language from a previous high court opinion.
Alito challenged the court's assertion, as he described it, that murder "is unique in its moral depravity and in the severity of the injury that it inflicts on the victim and the public."
"Indeed, I have little doubt that, in the eyes of ordinary Americans, the very worst child rapists predators who seek out and inflict serious physical and emotional injury on defenseless young children are the epitome of moral depravity," Alito wrote.
The majority failed to prove the Louisiana law is unconstitutional, and its ruling is not supported by the initial understanding of the Eighth Amendment, Alito said.
Joining Kennedy in the majority were Associate Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with Alito's dissent.
The case was Kennedy v. Louisiana.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its final rulings of the term June 26.