CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Question from the Past: Death for Rape?

From It was 44 years ago this spring that the state of Missouri put to death Ronald Wolfe for the crime of rape. Though no one could know it then, his execution would prove to be the end of an era. Rape had been a capital crime for much of Ameri­can history, and it remained so through the middle decades of the 20th century, almost exclusively in the South. About nine of 10 of those sentenced to death for rape during those years were black.

In 1977, a year after having restored the death penalty as a constitutional punishment for murder, the U.S. Supreme Court branded death a cruel and unusual pun­ishment for rape. The justices overturned a death sentence for three-time rapist Ehrlich Coker and strongly suggested that only homicide qualifies as a capital crime. Coker’s victim was just 16 years old, but she was referred to as an “adult woman” in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584.

“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,” wrote Justice Byron White.

On April 16, the court will reconsider that “abiding conviction” in the case of a convicted child rapist from Louisiana. Kennedy v. Louisiana, No. 07-343.

When Patrick Kennedy, a black man, was sentenced to die for the rape of his 8-year-old stepdaughter, he was the only person on death row in this country for a crime other than murder. In 1995, Louisiana became the first state to restore capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12. Since then, four other states—Montana, Okla­homa, South Carolina and Texas—have authorized capital punishment for child rape, albeit for a second conviction for sexual assault of a child. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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