Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court Decision Affects Texas Law

Under our system of federalism, the individual states are permitted to create their own laws and extend rights beyond those granted by the government in Washington, D.C. However, the autonomy of a state reaches its end once a determination has been made that the U.S. Constitution has been violated. In a highly anticipated ruling, the Supreme Court decided yesterday that the death penalty cannot be used as punishment for child rape if that crime does not result in death.

The Court’s ruling came out of a Louisiana case in which the death penalty was imposed on a man convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter. What is the specific application to our state? The 5-4 decision will affect Jessica’s Law, which was passed by the Texas state legislature last year. Jessica’s Law was so named in honor of Jessica Lunsford, the nine-year-old Florida girl who was killed by a sex offender.

The Texas law allowed for the death penalty or life in prison for those who are repeat offenders of sexual assault against a child. The Supreme Court decided that the death penalty for a crime in which no one was killed, or the intent to kill did not exist, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment. Texas courts will still have the option of sentencing such criminals to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The argument has been made that the Supreme Court decision will increase the number of convictions of child rapists. As explained by Karen Amacker with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, "The reality is that child victims and their families don't want to be responsible for sending a grandparent, cousin or long-time family friend to death row." Only time will show if the removal of the death penalty option will give more children the courage to come forward as victims of this hideous crime.

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