A convicted Louisiana rapist has become the first person in more than a quarter century to be sent to a state’s death row for a crime not involving murder, the Christian Science Monitor says. Patrick Kennedy was sentenced to death under a 1995 state law that allows executions in cases of rape involving children under 12. Kennedy repeatedly raped his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998, prosecutors say.
Legal experts believe the law will be declared unconstitutional, but it has focused attention on whether the ultimate punishment is appropriate in cases other than murder. A few states have capital-crime laws for offenses like treason and train wrecking, but they are considered outdated.
The federal government has several nonmurder crimes punishable by death, including espionage, drug trafficking, and kidnapping. But federal juries remain largely unconvinced that capital punishment should be used for anything but murder and are handing down life sentences instead, death-penalty experts say.
“The FBI rates rape as the second most violent crime to murder. So in some sense it is the next most logical one to include, though it’s certainly not appropriate in all cases,” says Jamie Zuieback of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington.
Missouri was the last state to execute someone for rape, in 1964. Many states had such laws on the books until 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed in the rape of an adult woman. The justices called the sentence disproportionate to the crime, and outlawed it as cruel and unusual punishment.
The Monitor says opponents of the Louisiana law are confident that Kennedy’s sentence will make its way to the high court, where it will be found unconstitutional, based on the fact that public opinion is overwhelmingly against the law.
One problem with such a law, says Judy Benitez of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, is that children are required to testify against their attacker – most often a family member or friend.