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THE US Supreme Court in a major capital punishment decision yesterday struck down the death penalty for child rape, its first decision in more than 30 years on whether a crime other than murder can be punished by execution.
The nation’s highest court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the death penalty for the crime of raping a child violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Constitution barred a state from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child when the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death.
Kennedy concluded that capital punishment, based on current evolving standards, should be reserved for crimes that take the life of the victim.
The ruling was a victory for Patrick Kennedy, aged 43, of Louisiana, who challenged his death sentence after being convicted for raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter in 1998.
Of the more than 3,300 inmates on death row in America, Kennedy and another man convicted of child rape in Louisiana, are the only ones who did not commit murder.
The Supreme Court last ruled on the death penalty and rape in 1977, when it outlawed executions in a case in which the victim was an adult woman.
It declared the death penalty an excessive penalty for a rapist who does not take a human life.
That decision left open whether the death penalty can be imposed for child rape.
The Louisiana law, adopted in 1995, allows the death penalty for those convicted of rape of a child under the age of 12. It was later amended to change the age to 13.
Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have similar laws. The last execution in the United States for rape occurred 44 years ago.
Kennedy, in the court’s majority opinion, declared the Louisiana law to be unconstitutional. He said a national consensus exists against capital punishment for the crime of child rape.
Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote on the closely divided court, was joined by the court’s liberals — Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The court’s conservative members — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both appointed by President George W Bush, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — dissented.
Alito criticised the court’s decision.
He said it means the death penalty would be barred “no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be.”
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