Death Penalty for Child Rape?

Court to decide if the death penalty is "cruel and unusual" for child rapists.

April 16, 2008 — -- In 1998, Patrick O. Kennedy called 911 to report that his 8-year-old stepdaughter had just been raped.

Kennedy blamed two boys from his suburban New Orleans neighborhood for the attack and told police that the boys had fled on bicycles.

But police soon suspected Kennedy of the crime.

At trial, the girl, who had required surgery after the attack, testified that Kennedy had raped her and that he had coached her to lie to police.

Testimony at trial also revealed that Kennedy had called a carpet cleaning company about removing bloodstains from his carpet even before dialing 911.

Kennedy's crime was considered so heinous that he was sentenced to death under Louisiana law, which imposes the death penalty for the rape of a child.

If he is put to death, it will be the first time in nearly 31 years that the death penalty has been used for a nonhomicide offense.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to the death penalty, there are currently more than 3,300 people on death row in America, and Kennedy is one of only two who did not commit murder.

Kennedy is appealing his sentence to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, arguing that laws in Louisiana and five other states that impose the death penalty for child rape violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In court documents his lawyers argue, "Prosecutorial practices confirm that society views the death penalty as disproportionate to the offense of child rape."

The lawyers say that such a punishment remains "a freakish exception" to the typical sentence of imprisonment imposed in thousands of other cases across the country.

Supporters of Louisiana's law disagree and argue that the death penalty is a just sentence for child rape.

"In this instance, the victim was an 8-year-old girl who was asleep in her own bed in the morning and found her 300-pound stepfather violently physically raping her," said Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who represents five other states with laws similar to Louisiana.

"This little girl will suffer the consequences of Patrick Kennedy's horrific crime every day of her life," Cruz said.

But Kennedy has received support from unlikely allies: victim's rights groups.

They fear that imposing the death penalty for child rape could encourage child rapists to kill their victims.

"If the offenders know that they don't face any greater risk for killing the victim then they do for raping the victim, what is their incentive for letting the victim live?" said Judy Benitez, who is the executive director for the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault.

Some victims of child rape also support Kennedy. Jody Plauche, now 35, who was raped and kidnapped as a child, says that the possibility of the death penalty adds too much burden to the child.

"A child who's been raped has been through enough," he said.

He points out that the offenders are usually a trusted adult and he worries the children will feel "extra trauma" if they know that the offender might die if the child reports the crime.

Louisiana, Montana, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are the six states that provide capital punishment for the rape of a child.

Eight other states and the federal government allow the death penalty for nonhomicide offenses such as treason, espionage, hijacking and kidnapping.

In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute people who rape adults. In more recent years, the court has concluded that capital punishment is unconstitutional for the mentally retarded and for juveniles, but the court has never ruled on child rapists.

A decision is expected by early summer.