In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices decide child rape isn't a capital offense.
Sentencing a child rapist to death is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment.
In a major ruling sharply restricting crimes carrying potential death sentences, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated part of a Louisiana statute that made aggravated sexual assault against a child under 12 a capital offense.
The majority justices ruled 5 to 4 that capital punishment is constitutionally impermissible for person-on-person violent crime that does not result in the death of the victim. The case is Kennedy v. Louisiana.
"The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
The Eighth Amendment must reflect the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Justice Kennedy said. He added that a national consensus had emerged against capital punishment for child rape.
The decision won immediate praise from capital-punishment opponents. "The court's decision wisely rejects the dramatic expansion of capital punishment that would undermine the long-standing principle of civilized societies that reserves the ultimate penalty for those who commit the most heinous murders," said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a Washington-based legal-research group.
She said expansion of the death penalty beyond murder "would have exacerbated the already intolerable level of error at the expense of both crime victims and those wrongly accused of these terrible acts."
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