Locals react on death penalty ruling

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Locals react on death penalty ruling

Post  Jennie on Sun Jun 29, 2008 7:50 pm

Locals react on death penalty ruling

Barely a year after Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law this state's version of "Jessica's Law" — last year's legislation that brought the death penalty into play for repeat child sexual predators — a Supreme Court ruling on a Louisiana case has nullified the death penalty as punishment for crimes that do not cause the death of the victim.

The Texas bill, House Bill 8, was supported by this county's legislative delegation and by local law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Arnold Zwicke and District Attorney Vicki Pattillo.

It set a minimum 25 years to life sentence for a new category of crime — continual sexual abuse of a child or children under age 14 — and made the sexual assault of a child subsequent to a previous conviction for the same offense a capital crime punishable by death or by life in prison without parole.

No one has been executed for sexual assault in the United States since 1964, and opponents questioned the constitutionality of the law because the federal laws that reimposed the death penalty did not include sexual assault as a death penalty offense. The Louisiana case decided Wednesday on a split 5-4 vote was widely anticipated to test such laws in several states.

In his majority opinion which called the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in child sex assault cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, " ... the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child."

But the decision does not totally overturn "Jessica's Law" in Texas. When House Bill 8 was passed last year, it included a fallback penalty of life without parole if capital punishment was outlawed for child sexual assault.

"In anticipation of an adverse decision, the legislature included as a safety valve that, should the Supreme Court invalidate the death penalty, then these people are just going to be sentenced to life without parole," said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "It certainly invalidates the death penalty for any of these cases that does not result in a child’s death, but 'Jessica's Law' was a 75-page bill, and this was just one part of it. There are still a lot of provisions in 'Jessica's Law’ that are useful to prosecutors and are not affected by this opinion."

Edmonds said he was aware of no prosecutions in Texas where a district attorney had so far sought the death penalty in a sexual assault case since House Bill 8 took effect last September.

"I think everyone was waiting for this decision," Edmonds said.

Pattillo expressed scant surprise at the Supreme Court outcome.

"I didn't expect the U.S. Supreme Court to expand the death penalty for sexual assault cases," Pattillo said. "But I still think that our 'Jessica's Law' is a big step in the right direction to get repeat sex offenders locked up forever. The Texas Legislature passed a law that provides for life without parole as an option in certain cases even if the death penalty provision is overturned. I have long believed that Texas needed an option for life without parole in egregious cases. We must take strong measures to protect the children in our communities and to ensure that violent sex offenders do not have the opportunity to repeat their heinous crimes against our defenseless children."

Sheriff Arnold Zwicke supported the death penalty for child sexual predators when the law passed, and he supports it today.

"I know I'll offend some people," Zwicke said. "But I was very disappointed that they did not uphold the death penalty simply because the victim serves an automatic life sentence, and I get very frustrated to see sex offenders get off with probation or deferred adjudication probation. The sentence should be at least as severe for the perpetrator as it is for the victim."

Life without parole would be more suitable to the offense, in Zwicke's mind — and in terms of protecting the public.

Many sex offenders offend again, Zwicke pointed out, and the public — and especially children — should be protected from repeat sex offenders.

"I'd rather see them stay in jail than have them out on the street where they could find their next victim," Zwicke said.

For his part, Perry said Texas would continue to seek the toughest sanctions possible against repeat child predators — whatever that punishment is.

"In my opinion, laws should be strong enough to deter these unspeakable offenses or, in the least, prevent these lowest of criminals from harming any child again," Perry said. "I believe the vast majority of Texans agree that the death sentence is the appropriate punishment for someone convicted of raping a child."

Even still, Perry said Texas would follow the law of the land.

"While today's opinion does not directly address Texas law, we recognize that our state is guided by the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court," Perry said. "That said, Texas will continue to seek the toughest punishment allowable for the predators who commit crimes of this nature, including the sentence of life without parole that is also permitted under our state's version of Jessica's Law. As Justice (Samuel) Alito's dissenting opinion says: '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,' justice should be served."

Assistant County Attorney Robert Etlinger called the ruling yet one more instance of the nation's highest court legislating from the bench.

"It's another example of how 5 people have the authority to overthrow the will of the people," Etlinger said.

The court, he said, imposed its opinion of what constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment on the voters of Louisiana and on the rest of the country.

"When they say it's 'cruel and unusual' when a certain rapist gets a death sentence, obviously, that's their subjective opinion,” Etlinger said. "They've subjected their opinion as to what constitutes 'cruel and unusual' on the voters of Louisiana."

The court has sought to supersede the legislature in a number of ways over a number of years, Etlinger said, and it's time that was changed.

"They're part of our system of checks and balances, but this just demonstrates again that it's time to make some changes in the way they do business," Etlinger said.

"Jessica" was Jessica Lunsford, 9, a Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted in a trailer and killed in 2005 by a previously convicted sex offender.

(source: The Gazette-Enterprise)

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