Kennedy v. Louisiana

Louisiana charged petitioner with the aggravated rape of his then-8-year-old stepdaughter. He was convicted and sentenced to death under a state statute authorizing capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12. The State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting petitioner’s reliance on Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, which barred the use of the death penalty as punishment for the rape of an adult woman but left open the question which, if any, other nonhomicide crimes can be punished by death consistent with the Eighth Amendment. Reasoning that children are a class in need of special protection, the state court held child rape to be unique in terms of the harm it inflicts upon the victim and society and concluded that, short of first-degree murder, there is no crime more deserving of death. The court acknowledged that petitioner would be the first person executed since the state law was amended to authorize the death penalty for child rape in 1995, and that Louisiana is in the minority of jurisdictions authorizing death for that crime. However, emphasizing that four more States had capitalized child rape since 1995 and at least eight others had authorized death for other nonhomicide crimes, as well as that, under Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, and Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, it is the direction of change rather than the numerical count that is significant, the court held petitioner’s death sentence to be constitutional.

Held: The Eighth Amendment bars Louisiana from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death. Pp. 8–36.

   1. The Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause “draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101. The standard for extreme cruelty “itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change.” Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238, 382. Under the precept of justice that punishment is to be graduated and proportioned to the crime, informed by evolving standards, capital punishment must “be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’ ” Roper, supra, at 568. Applying this principle, the Court held in Roper and Atkins that the execution of juveniles and mentally retarded persons violates the Eighth Amendment because the offender has a diminished personal responsibility for the crime. The Court also has found the death penalty disproportionate to the crime itself where the crime did not result, or was not intended to result, in the victim’s death. See, e.g., Coker, supra; Enmund v. Florida, 458 U. S. 782In making its determination, the Court is guided by “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice with respect to executions.” Ropersupra, at 563. Consensus is not dispositive, however. Whether the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime also depends on the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and on the Court’s own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s text, history, meaning, and purpose. Pp. 8–10.

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