WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday it will decide whether a convicted child rapist can be put to death, thereby reconsidering a more than 40-year trend in the United States in which executions have been limited to murderers.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from Patrick Kennedy, a Louisiana man who was convicted of the brutal rape of his 8-year-old stepdaughter. His lawyers described him has "the only person in the United States who is on death row for a non-homicide offense."
Rape was commonly prosecuted as a capital offense in the 19th and early 20th century, particularly for blacks in the South. In May 1964, Missouri executed Ronald Wolfe for rape, the last such execution in this country for a sexual assault that did not result in death.
In September 1964, Alabama electrocuted James Coburn for robbery, the last execution for "any non-homicide offense," according to the Stanford University Law School professors who appealed on Kennedy's behalf.
Capital punishment was suspended in the late 1960s, but the Supreme Court restored the death penalty as an option for the states in 1976.
Just a year later, however, the justices struck down the death penalty for a rapist from Georgia. "We have the abiding conviction that the death penalty, which is unique in its severity and irrevocability, is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such, does not take human life," the Supreme Court said in Georgia vs. Coker.
That 1977 decision was widely seen as outlawing the death penalty for a crime short of murder.
But in 1995, Louisiana reauthorized the death penalty for aggravated rape when the victim was 12 or younger. South Carolina, Oklahoma, Montana and Texas also permit capital punishment for a repeat child rapist, but no one has been sentenced to death under those laws.
Kennedy, 43, is black and has an IQ of about 70, his lawyers said. On the morning of March 2, 1998, he called the police to report his stepdaughter had been raped by two teenage boys in the neighborhood. She was taken away in an ambulance, having suffered severe injuries and heavy bleeding.
But investigators turned their attention to Kennedy when they found a trail of blood leading from the house.
The stepdaughter eventually pointed to him as the rapist and testified against him at his trial. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to die in 2003. Louisiana's Supreme Court upheld the punishment as constitutional.
The Supreme Court should issue a ruling in the case of Kennedy vs. Louisiana by late June.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.