Making Sex Crimes Against Kids a Capital Offense

When two teenage girls were kidnapped from their beds and raped in an underground dungeon, allegedly by a convicted sex offender, it provided a new impetus to South Carolina legislators to make one of the most terrible crimes imaginable punishable by the death penalty.

A bill that would allow the death penalty for people convicted twice of raping children under age 11 progressed to the South Carolina House on Wednesday after the State Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure on Tuesday. The State Senate in Oklahoma approved a similar measure earlier this month.

State Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican who is the sponsor of the South Carolina bill, said he expected the House to take up the legislation as early as next week.

Bryant said there was a sense of urgency in the South Carolina legislature to toughen penalties for child molesters. His bill, which he originally proposed in December, languished until the recent arrest of Kenneth Hinson. Hinson, a convicted sex offender, is charged with kidnapping and raping two 17-year-old girls at a South Carolina home earlier this month.

The news caused lawmakers to fast-track legislation toughening penalties for sex offenders.

"The incident heightened public awareness of the issue. I hope the two young ladies are recovering. Their case really caused people to pay attention," Bryant said.

Ten miles from Bryant's home in Pendleton, authorities are searching for a man who attacked a 10-year-old girl last week with a metal dog leash. The girl escaped, but Bryant used the example to explain why he felt compelled to propose the amendment.

"Raping a child is as horrific as taking life. And I would like South Carolina to make a statement to the nation that we take these crimes extremely seriously," he said.

If the House approves Bryant's bill, South Carolina will become the second state, after Louisiana, to allow the death penalty for raping a child.

The last time the death penalty was imposed for a sex crime was in 1964 in Missouri. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that execution for rape constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Kay Levine, an assistant law professor at Emory University, said she believed proponents of Bryant's legislation faced an uphill battle to convince the Supreme Court that capital punishment for sex crimes was constitutional.

"In the last two death penalty cases we've seen, the Supreme Court has gone in the direction of saying that the death penalty is cruel and unusual. Child rape is incredibly serious, but by most people's calculations it's less serious than taking somebody's life," Levine said.

Mark Lunsford has as much reason as anyone to want people who rape children to face the death penalty. His 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, was raped and buried alive last year by a convicted sex offender. He agrees that imposing the death penalty for child rape is reaching too far.

"Even with my limited knowledge of the Supreme Court, I think it's unlikely to hold up. Even child rapists have rights," he said.

Lunsford became an advocate for stricter penalties for people who commit sex crimes against children after convicted sex offender John Couey's crimes against his daughter.

"If we can't give them the death penalty, then let's give them 25 years to life," Lunsford said.

In the last year, Lunsford has visited one state every month lobbying for the passage of the Jessica Lunsford Act. Florida passed the law last spring, establishing mandatory sentencing of at least 25 years in prison and lifetime tracking by a global positioning system after release for people who commit sex crimes against children.

Several other states are working toward passing their own versions of Jessica's law.

On Tuesday, the State Senate in Michigan approved legislation that would require a mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders with no possibility of parole.

The death penalty amendment in South Carolina is part of a larger bill that would impose mandatory sentencing and electronic monitoring for some sex crimes against children.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 549,038 registered sex offenders in the United States.

Bryant said he had a message for convicts. "I hope they leave our state and never return. I hope those people who have these tendencies will go elsewhere," he said.

Although the legislation is likely to face court challenges, those who support it believe the mere prospect of execution will prevent crimes against children from occurring in their towns.

In Levine's opinion, however, proposing the death penalty for child molesters is not the most efficient use of lawmakers' time and resources.

"A lot of times, legislators do these things for symbolic reasons -- for political capital. They're doing this to show they're tough, and it sets up the courts as a bad guy," Levine said.

Recent cases show that execution is not always a deterrent. Earlier this month, a Florida judge sentenced Joseph P. Smith to death for the 2004 kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia.