Kennedy v. Louisiana

Kennedy was convicted by jury of aggravated rape of an eight-year-old and sentenced to death. A Louisiana statute authorizes the death penalty for certain non-homicide crimes, including aggravated rape of a minor. On appeal, the defendant argued that the punishment authorized by the Louisiana statute is excessive and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, and further, that the statute does not adequately narrow the class of death-eligible rapists.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana held that the statute did not violate the Eighth Amendment. First, it found that of the 38 states with the death penalty, five provide for it in the case of child rape. But it also noted that child rape is considered the most heinous of all non-homicide crimes, and while the majority of other states may not provide capital punishment for child rape, fourteen others provide capital punishment for non-homicide crimes which are less heinous, such as kidnapping or extreme drug trafficking. Based on evidence from other states, the court concluded that was no consensus one way or the other on whether death is an appropriate punishment for any crime which does not result in the death of the victim, but that the direction of change indicated that states were becoming more receptive to the the imposition of capital punishment for non-homicide crimes. In particular, four states have enacted laws which capitalize child rape since 1996. Second, the court concluded that child rapists are among the worst categories of offenders, and that punishing child rape with death would serve the twin goals of retribution and deterrence. Finally, the court held that the aggravated rape statute adequately narrows the class of death-eligible rapists by requiring the jury at the sentencing phase to find one aggravating factor (i.e. the age of the child).

Questions Presented:

1. Whether the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause permits a State to punish the crime of rape of a child with the death penalty.

2. If so, whether Louisiana’s capital rape statute violates the Eighth Amendment insofar as it fails genuinely to narrow the class of such offenders eligible for the death penalty.

Decision under Review

Supreme Court Opinion