THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE U.S.----Civilized standards

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THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE U.S.----Civilized standards

Post  Jennie on Sun Jun 29, 2008 7:28 pm

THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE U.S.----Civilized standards

'Death to the child rapist" is a blood-curdling call that has long since lost its place in nearly all civilized societies. So while it is heartening that the United States Supreme Court barred Louisiana and 5 other states from executing convicted child rapists, it's chilling that four of the nine judges would have allowed the practice, and disturbing that the 2 major presidential candidates, John McCain of the Republicans and Barack Obama of the Democrats, criticized the ruling.

One vote away from institutionalizing the blood lust of the mob gives little comfort, even though this is an exceptionally horrific and odious crime. Between 1930 and 1964, 455 people in the United States were put to death by the state for rapes of adults or children. Apparently none of the executed was a white man who raped a black woman or child, the NAACP said in its brief. There were 5,700 rapes of children reported in the United States in 2005, compared to 3,400 murders, and while aggravating factors are necessary before a murderer is executed, it's possible that most child rapists would be put to death. Death for child rapists would turn the state into a busy killing machine.

There are several major problems of a practical nature: first, the potential for wrongful executions, given unreliable or induced testimony from children. (In the Louisiana case before the court, an 8-year-old girl initially blamed 2 neighbourhood children, under pressure from her stepfather, who was ultimately convicted.) Second, the child victims would often have been obliged to testify, in effect to bring about the death of a criminal who might also be a close relative. As the judges pointed out, children are too young to make such a moral choice. Third, the death penalty would remove the rapist's incentive not to kill his victim. And fourth, rape within families would be even less likely to be reported than it is now.

While the judges in the majority said the national consensus was against death for child rapists - no one has been executed for rape since 1964 - they were also bold enough to directly address why executing child rapists is wrong. "The court's own judgment should be brought to bear." Punishment must "be exercised within the limits of civilized standards." There is the nub of it. If the consensus supports barbarism, is that enough to make barbarism lawful? To the judges in the minority, who include President George W. Bush's 2 appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, civilized standards are what the states say they are. But to the majority, "When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint." By 1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that descent. It was a disturbingly close call that augurs poorly for the continued dismantling of the death penalty.

(source: Toronto Globe and Mail, June 27)

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