U.S. Supreme Court Denies Rehearing in Kennedy v. Louisiana Opinion

On October 1, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Louisiana's request for a rehearing of the Court's ruling striking down the death penalty for non-homicidal offenses against individuals. Louisiana contended that a recent adjustment to military law that continued to allow the death penalty for child rape should have been taken into account by the Court, resulting in a different opinion. The Court slightly modified both the majority and dissenting opinions to include reference to the military code. The Court issued a statement, leaving intact its decision not only reversing Patrick Kennedy's death sentence for child rape, but also holding that the death penalty would be disproportionate for any crime against an individual in which the victim is not killed.  The statement said, in part:

[A]uthorization of the death penalty in the military sphere does not indicate that the penalty is constitutional in the civilian context. The military death penalty for rape was in effect before the decisions in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238 (1972) (per curiam), and Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584 (1977); and when the Court surveyed state and federal law in Coker, it made no mention of the military penalty.

. . .

That the Manual for Courts-Martial retains the death penalty for rape of a child or an adult when committed by a member of the military does not draw into question our conclusions that there is a consensus against the death penalty for the crime in the civilian context and that the penalty here is unconstitutional.


On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the Louisiana statute that allowed the death penalty for the rape of a child where the victim did not die. The Court held that all such laws, where the crime against an individual involved no murder or intent to murder, were not in keeping with the national consensus restricting the death penalty to the worst offenses. As a result, the only two people sentenced to death for this crime in the modern capital punishment era no longer face execution. Both were sentenced under the Louisiana statute that was found unconstitutional. Today, no one is on death row for any offense not involving murder.

The Court noted that the defendant, Patrick Kennedy, had been sentenced to death under a law that was not embraced by 44 out of the 50 states. The Court pointed to the danger in laws such as Louisiana's, which allowed the death penalty where no murder was committed: "When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint."

Victims' groups and child advocates had concluded that the death penalty for child rape could actually harm children, rather than protect them. Some of the reasons they cited included a possible decrease in reporting, re-victimization through the lengthy appeals or re-trials, and that equating rape to muder sends the wrong message to child victims.

(Kennedy v. Lousiana, 07-343 U.S. (2008); Order modifying the opinion and dissent, Oct. 1, 2008). See Supreme Court and DPIC's Kennedy v. Lousiana page.