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Supreme Court to Review Unusual Death Sentence in Louisiana
1/16/2008 12:23 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on January 4 to review the case of a man in Louisiana who was sentenced to death for a crime in which the victim, a child, did not die. Of the approximately 3,350 people on death row in the U.S., only two inmates received the death penalty for a non-homicide crime. Patrick Kennedy was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004 for the rape of his 8-year-old stepdaughter. He is challenging his sentence as a violation of the Eighth Amendment based on the rarity of a death sentence for this crime. Richard Davis is also on Louisiana's death row for a similar crime. No one in the U.S. has been executed for a crime other than murder since 1964.

The Court last considered a related case in 1977 when it prohibited capital punishment for the rape of an adult in Coker v. Georgia. While the case did not specifically address the rape of children under the age of 12, “the decision has been widely understood as limiting the death penalty to the crime of murder,” according to The New York Times.

Four other states have laws allowing the death penalty for a sexual assault against a minor, although no one has been sentenced to death in those states (Montana, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas). Those states limit the punishment to defendants who have been previously convicted of sexual assault against a minor, unlike Louisiana, which was the first to amend its death penalty statute.

Both the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a group of organizations and individuals that work with sexual assault victims have filed briefs on Kennedy’s behalf, with the latter group concerned that acceptance of the punishment will further dissuade sexual assault victims from reporting the crime.

The case, Kennedy v. Louisiana, No. 07-343, will most likely be argued in April. Legal briefs in the case can be found at the Capital Appeals Project.