Oklahoma's governor, Brad Henry, a Democrat, signed a bill this month that would allow jurors to sentence to death repeat sex offenders for crimes against children younger than 14. The day before, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, signed a bill that would allow capital punishment for repeat offenders guilty of sex crimes against children younger than 11. Sanford announced that the bill would be "an incredibly powerful deterrent to offenders that have been released."
I could not disagree more -- and I support the death penalty, and believe that men (and women) who repeatedly rape or molest children deserve harsh punishment and long, hard time in the big house.
Michael Rushford of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., captured my thoughts exactly when he said: "It's like this. If you get a death sentence for raping a little girl, and you get a death sentence for a raping a little girl and killing a little girl, and the only witness to the crime is the little girl, why not kill them all?"
These bills are likely to eat up a lot of tax dollars on appeals -- then lose, as the U.S. Supreme Court seems predisposed to overturn the new legislation.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, no one has been executed in America for a crime that did not involve murder. In 1977, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute a man for the crime of raping an adult woman -- and this rape occurred as the rapist escaped from a Georgia prison, where he was serving time for murder, rape, kidnapping and aggravated assault.
The Big Bench ruled that "a sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape and is therefore forbidden by the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment." It is a fine principle of American jurisprudence that the state does not mete out a punishment greater than the crime.
Since 1976, five states have passed laws to allow execution for sex crimes against children, but according to The Associated Press, only one inmate has been sentenced to death -- he raped an 8-year-old girl in Louisiana -- and his case is pending on appeal.
Rushford noted the many judges who would oppose the death penalty, even for an unrepentant multiple murderer like Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who was executed in December. Ergo, even more judges will look at the death penalty for sex offenders and "are going to step up to say, 'This is over the line.'"
And: "If I were an opponent of the death penalty, I would probably support the Oklahoma law." I called Lance Lindsey of Death Penalty Focus, which opposes capital punishment. Lindsey told me he opposes the law, too: "Essentially, I'm against the government killing prisoners."
Here are two additional reasons other states should not follow Oklahoma. First, the hint of child abuse can spawn a witch-hunt atmosphere in the courts. Authorities have been known to coax young children to accuse innocent adults, and prosecutors have charged child-care providers based on testimony that was hard to believe when cooler heads prevailed. Witness the infamous McMartin preschool case in 1983.
Second, America's laws should not send a message that the victims of sexual assaults have been harmed irrevocably, as murder victims are. No victim survives murder. Rape presents horrific trauma -- however, over time, most victims, even child victims, can overcome the pain and sense of violation. I don't want laws that tell child victims they have experienced something as damaging as murder. They've been hurt enough.