Louisiana’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a man may be executed for raping an 8-year-old girl, and lawyers say his case may become the test for whether the nation’s highest court upholds the death penalty for someone who rapes a child.
In 1974, a gentlemanly bloke named Erlich Anthony Coker, who was serving a number of sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and assault, escaped from prison. During his short period of freedom he broke into a Georgia couple’s home, raped the woman and stole their car. For the rape charge the Georgia courts sentenced him to death.
In 1977 the Supreme Court by a vote of 7-2 overturned the “grossly disproportionate” sentence in Coker v. Georgia saying that the non-homicidal rape of an adult woman does not warrant our nation’s highest form of punishment.
This case involving the 8-year-old girl could give the current Supreme Court the opportunity to once again decide the applicability of capital punishment to rape. It’s possible that the court will overturn Coker entirely and allow the states to decide which crimes warrant the death penalty, but I believe if this case reaches the Supreme Court the justices will expand Coker to include rapes against minors.
Lately, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has most often aligned with the conservatives to form 5-4 majorities, the most recent being Tuesday’s Ledbetter decision that still has Ruth Bader Ginsburg fuming.
But Justice Kennedy is very leery when it comes to capital punishment and wound up siding with the liberals in two very big 5-4 decisions that barred the use of capital punishment on minors and the mentally retarded. I would not be surprised if we saw another 5-4 decision with him joining the liberals barring capital punishment on offenders guilty of non-homicidal rape.
As an opponent of capital punishment I don’t like the idea of capital punishment being expanded to include lesser crimes, and to avoid calling rape a “lesser crime” I’ll say I’d hate to see it applied to, say, armed robbery. Or grand theft auto. Or tax fraud.
But nevertheless capital punishment is a debate for the states to have. The Constitution clearly invites the use of the death penalty via the Fifth Amendment so let the states decide how it should be used.