29 June 2008

Rape and the Death Penalty

The end of the judicial “season” was a momentous one. The US Supreme Court upheld rights in interesting ways. Both by 5-4 margins, the Court extended habeas corpus rights to, presumably, every human being on the planet regardless of location or disposition, and ensured US citizen’s right to bear arms – albeit with limited (reasonable) exclusions.

Also by way of 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the death penalty for a man, one Patrick Kennedy of Louisiana, who raped his girlfriend’s then 8-year old child. The details of the crime are quite heinous. To say that the crime damaged the girl would be a profound understatement, even if only from a medical point of view. Yet the majority on the Court claimed that allowing a state to impose the death penalty for a criminal convicted of rape case amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, thus violating the US Constitution.

In the majority opinion, “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” which guide cruel and unusual punishment is cited. What strikes me about this argument is that it hopes to impose through judicial interpretation a single standard of decency with regard to punishment across the entire nation. If, with full knowledge of “cruel and unusual punishment” front and center, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upholds the death penalty for Mr. Kennedy, how is it that the US Supreme Court can impose its “evolving standard of decency” upon the state? For a crime which, by its very nature, is quite beyond any decency, it seems to me that proper punishment can and should be decided by the state in which the crime was committed.

An argument can also be made that imposing the death penalty for any crime which does not, in fact, take a life may result in future criminals terminating their victims’ lives simply because there would be no greater punishment imposed. This seems like an argument with poor footing, as it presupposes knowledge of the criminal mind in the act. However, some may be persuaded by this argument – which is why allowing the individual states discretion with regard to proper punishment should be exercised instead of resorting to the US Supreme Court on the matter.

Finally, there are some that say that it is no matter – “prison justice” will visit Mr. Kennedy once he goes to the general population. This to me is a cop-out; it is trusting convicted criminals to do what the US Supreme Court has prohibited.

At least the state of Louisiana has decided to imprison Mr. Kennedy for life without the possibility of parole. This is not, as the majority opinion states, because it “preserve[s] the possibility that he and the system will find ways to allow him to understand the enormity of his offense.” It is, rather, a death sentence by other means. Unfortunately, Mr. Kennedy will be a ward of the state for much, much longer than if the state were allowed to impose its preferred punishment without federal interference.

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