Yesterday. the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for rape of a child under 12. In Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Supreme Court held that the death penalty for rape was unconstitutional. Many commentators had interpreted the reasoning of Coker as precluding the death penalty for anything short of murder and possibly some national security offenses (treason, espionage, and the like). But Coker spoke expressly and repeatedly of rape of an adult, so the question of the death penalty for rape of a child remains open.
Yesterday's decision follows the lead of a 1996 Louisiana Supreme Court case (State v. Wilson), but Wilson decided the question in the context of a pretrial motion, and the U.S. Supreme Court understandably -- given its general preference not to review decisions before a final judgment -- refused to hear the case. The new case, State v. Kennedy, upholds a death sentence, so I suspect the Supreme Court will agree to consider the issue.
The Louisiana opinion is long and detailed, and I can't do it justice with a capsule summary; but here's a particularly interesting passage that tries to apply the U.S. Supreme Court's death penalty methodology that was developed in the recent cases having to do with the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded (one paragraph break added):
Overall, it appears that approximately 30% of capital jurisdictions (15 of 38, including federal) authorize some form of non-homicide capital punishment, a showing strong enough to suggest that there may be no consensus one way or the other on whether death is an appropriate punishment for any crime which does not result in the death of the victim. However, when the direction of change is considered, clearly the direction is towards the imposition of capital punishment for non-homicide crimes. As stated earlier, the number of jurisdictions allowing the death penalty for non-homicide crimes more than doubled between 1993 and 1997.
Most important to our analysis is the fact that four states have enacted laws which capitalize child rape since Wilson, evidencing movement in the direction that this Court thought possible back in 1996 when Wilson was decided. Looked at another way, even after the Supreme Court decided in Coker that the death penalty for rape of an adult woman was unconstitutional, five states nevertheless have capitalized child rape since then, a number which the Supreme Court held in Roper was sufficient to indicate a new consensus regarding society’s standards of decency towards the juvenile death penalty.
In fact, the trend is more compelling than in Roper, given the Roper Court’s reliance on five states abolishing the death penalty for juveniles after Stanford held that the death penalty for juveniles was constitutional. Here, we have five states enacting the death penalty for child rape in spite of Coker, which held that the death penalty for rape of an adult was unconstitutional. Furthermore, it is likely that the ambiguity over whether Coker applies to all rape or just adult rape has left other states unsure of whether the death penalty for child rape is constitutional. These states may just be taking a “wait and see” attitude until the Supreme Court rules on the precise issue. Thus, the fact that only five states capitalize child rape should not pose an obstacle to the Court’s consideration of the issue, given the direction of change, i.e, an increase of five since Coker....
[Moreover,] it can be said for child rapists as a class of offenders that, unlike the young or mentally retarded, they share no common characteristic tending to mitigate the moral culpability of their crimes. Contrary to the mentally retarded and juvenile offenders, execution of child rapists will serve the goals of deterrence and retribution just as well as execution of first-degree murderers would. Our state legislature, and this Court, have determined this category of aggravated rapist to be among those deserving of the death penalty, and, short of a first-degree murderer, we can think of no other non-homicide crime more deserving.