The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday banned the death sentence for any criminal convicted of raping a child.
The 5 to 4 vote overturned a Louisiana law that allowed the death penalty in such cases. The court said the application of the death penalty in rape cases is a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment.
For more on this ruling, watch Horace Cooper, with the American Civil Rights Union.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority decision that "the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child."
"Society's desire to inflict death for child rape by enlisting the child victim to assist it over the course of years in asking for capital punishment forces a moral choice on the child, who is not of mature age to make that choice," Justice Kennedy wrote.
Currently 45 states ban the death penalty for any type of rape. Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas allowed the death sentence to be applied, but only if the defendant was a repeat offender with a child rape conviction.
In the Louisiana case, the lawmakers who crafted the law said that due to the heinous nature of the crime, the tendency of society was to veer toward the death sentence. This was also mentioned by Justice Samuel Alito when he wrote the minority dissent.
"The harm that is caused to the victims and to society at large by the worst child rapists is grave," Alito wrote. "It is the judgment of the Louisiana lawmakers and those in an increasing number of other states that these harms justify the death penalty."
Alito also pointed out in his dissent that the majority had ruled out executing someone for raping a child "no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator's prior criminal record may be."
There has not been an execution in the U.S. since 1964 for a crime not involving the death of the victim.
Kennedy said the absence of any executions for rape and the small number of states that allow it demonstrate "there is a national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape."
The justice wrapped up his opinion writing that in cases of crimes against individuals - as opposed to treason, for example - "the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken."
The decision does not affect the imposition of the death penalty for other crimes that do not involve murder, including treason and espionage, he said.
Sources: The Associated Press, New York Times