In turns out that Justice Kennedy's opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as a punishment for child rape mischaracterized federal law on the matter. As the NYT reports this morning, Kennedy's opinion claimed that the death penalty was only available in six jurisdictions within the United States, but that's not true. Kennedy correctly observed that the death penalty is not available for child rape in thirty of the thirty-six state jurisdictions that allow capital punishment. But Kennedy wrongly asserted that federal law does not provide for capital punishment either. This latter claim is simply untrue. Indeed, Congress has provided for the death penalty for child rape quite recently.
The mistake was uncovered by military blogger Dwight Sullivan, in this post for CAAFlog. As Sullivan noted, the FY2006 National Defense Authorization Act provided for capital punishment for child rape.
Section 552(b) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, 119 Stat. 3136, 3264 (2006), provides that "[u]ntil the President otherwise provides pursuant to" UCMJ article 56, "the punishment which a court-martial may direct for an offense under" the amended UCMJ article 120 "may not exceed the following limits: . . . For an offense under subsection (a) (rape) or subsection (b) (rape of a child), death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct."There is still time for the parties to the case to file a petition for reconsideration, but such petitions are rarely granted. I doubt Justice Kennedy would have decided the case any differently had he been more informed about current federal law. Nonetheless, it should be quite embarrassing that none of the advocates noted this error until now.
That is a congressional statute expressly authorizing the death penalty for the rape of a child. How come neither side in the Kennedy case even mentioned it?
The NYT story closes with a kicker:
No one in the military has been charged with a capital crime yet under the revised provision. And despite the flurry of activity surrounding the death penalty, the military has not in fact executed anyone for decades. Its last execution took place on April 13, 1961, when Pvt. John A. Bennett was put to death by hanging. His crime: the rape of an 11-year-old girl.
UPDATE: How bad was Justice Kennedy's mistake? Consider this passage from his opinion discussing the allegedly evolving consensus:
As for federal law, Congress in the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 expanded the number of federal crimes for which the death penalty is a permissible sentence, including certain nonhomicide offenses; but it did not do the same for child rape or abuse…. [A]n offender is death eligible only when the sexual abuse or exploitation results in the victim's death."Well, not exactly," notes Andrew McCarthy. He adds: "In point of fact, if there actually was a national consensus, it trended toward discouraging child rape by making execution an available sanction."
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