Supreme Court Holds That Eight Amendment Prohibits Death Penalty For Rape Of A Child

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2641 (2008) the United States Supreme Court held that under the Eight Amendment to the United Stated Constitution the death penalty cannot be imposed where the crimes did not result in the death of the victim and where death was not an intended result of the crime. 

History of the case:

The defendant Patrick Kennedy was charged with the aggravated of his eight year old stepdaughter.  He was convicted.  The jury voted to sentence him to death under a Louisiana statute that permitted executions for raping a child under the age of twelve.  Kennedy appealed the conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  That court affirmed the conviction.  In doing so it held in part that fourteen other states authorize the death penalty in cases other than homicide cases and that this is a trend representing a “direction of change”. 


In March of 1998 Patrick Kennedy called 911 to report that his stepdaughter had been raped.  He claimed that while in his garage getting his son ready for school two boys from his neighborhood dragged his stepdaughter into the yard, raped her and fled the scene.  The police arrived to see the victim bleeding from her vagina and wrapped in a bloody blanket.  The defendant told them that he carried her from the garage to the bathroom and started to clean her.  The victim was taken to the hospital.  Her injuries were so severe that emergency surgery was required. 

The case was tried five years later.  The victim testified against Kennedy.  There was ample corroborating evidence that he had in fact committed the crime.  His story was replete with inconsistencies.  Physical evidence at the scene and the police investigation made clear to the jury that Kennedy indeed committed this crime.  During the death penalty phase of the trial Kennedy’s ex-wife’s cousin testified that when she was eight years old Kennedy violated her sexually on three occasions.  The jury voted for the death penalty and the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed. 

The Holding:

Reiterating principles set out in earlier cases the Supreme Court stated that the death penalty must be reserved and limited to those who commit the most serious crimes.  The involvement of the defendant must make him most deserving of the death penalty.  The imposition of the death penalty must be proportionate to the crime that was committed.  Where the rape of a child is committed death must result for the death penalty to be imposed.  The Louisiana statute permitting the death penalty in this case, La. Stat. Ann. sec. 14:42 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court concluded that the death penalty must be limited to those situations where the victim was killed. 

Four Supreme Court Justices dissented in a scathing opinion written by Justice Alito. 

Massachusetts no longer has a death penalty.  It was struck down as unconstitutional in Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz, 393 Mass. 150 (1984).  In recent years this has been the subject of great debate in Massachusetts. 

Related Web Resources:

Boston Massachusetts Criminal Defense Law Firms

Massachusetts Death Penalty Facts