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Judicial rarity: death penalty in a rape case

Louisiana law on child rape revives debate over penalty in nonmurder cases.

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A Louisiana man has quietly become the first person in more than a quarter century to be sent to a state's death row for a crime not involving murder.

Patrick Kennedy was convicted and sentenced to death recently under a 1995 state law that allows for the punishment in cases of rape involving children under age 12. The victim was his 8-year-old stepdaughter, whom he repeatedly raped in 1998, prosecutors say.

Legal experts in Louisiana believe the case will be overturned and the law deemed unconstitutional upon review, but it has focused attention on a difficult moral question: whether the ultimate punishment should be applied in cases other than murder.

A few states have capital-crime laws for crimes such as treason and train wrecking, but almost all are considered outdated and are not used by prosecutors.

Life sentences, or death?

The federal government has several nonmurder crimes punishable by death, including espionage, drug trafficking, and kidnapping, and it is becoming much more aggressive in pursuing this sentence. But federal juries remain largely unconvinced that capital punishment should be used for anything but murder and are handing down life sentences instead, death-penalty experts say.

The case against Mr. Kennedy thus stands out, because a state jury found the details warranted death.

While not the first time the state has pursued the sentence in the case of child rape, it is the first time a jury has agreed to impose it.

"The FBI rates rape as the second most violent crime to murder. So in some sense it is the next most logical one to include, though it's certainly not appropriate in all cases," says Jamie Zuieback, spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington.

Missouri, in 1964, was the last state to execute someone for rape. Many states had such laws on the books until 1977 when the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed in the rape of an adult woman. The justices called the sentence disproportionate to the crime, and outlawed it as cruel and unusual punishment.

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