Kennedy v. Louisiana
554 U.S. 407 (2008)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Anthony M. Kennedy)  | 
  • Dissent (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)




certiorari to the supreme court of louisiana

No. 07–343. Argued April 16, 2008—Decided June 25, 2008

Louisiana charged petitioner with the aggravated rape of his then-8-year-old stepdaughter. He was convicted and sentenced to death under a state statute authorizing capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12. The State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting petitioner’s reliance on Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, which barred the use of the death penalty as punishment for the rape of an adult woman but left open the question which, if any, other nonhomicide crimes can be punished by death consistent with the Eighth Amendment. Reasoning that children are a class in need of special protection, the state court held child rape to be unique in terms of the harm it inflicts upon the victim and society and concluded that, short of first-degree murder, there is no crime more deserving of death. The court acknowledged that petitioner would be the first person executed since the state law was amended to authorize the death penalty for child rape in 1995, and that Louisiana is in the minority of jurisdictions authorizing death for that crime. However, emphasizing that four more States had capitalized child rape since 1995 and at least eight others had authorized death for other nonhomicide crimes, as well as that, under Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, and Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, it is the direction of change rather than the numerical count that is significant, the court held petitioner’s death sentence to be constitutional.

Held: The Eighth Amendment bars Louisiana from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death. Pp. 8–36.

   1. The Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause “draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101. The standard for extreme cruelty “itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change.” Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238, 382. Under the precept of justice that punishment is to be graduated and proportioned to the crime, informed by evolving standards, capital punishment must “be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’ ” Roper, supra, at 568. Applying this principle, the Court held in Roper and Atkins that the execution of juveniles and mentally retarded persons violates the Eighth Amendment because the offender has a diminished personal responsibility for the crime. The Court also has found the death penalty disproportionate to the crime itself where the crime did not result, or was not intended to result, in the victim’s death. See, e.g., Coker, supra; Enmund v. Florida, 458 U. S. 782. In making its determination, the Court is guided by “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice with respect to executions.” Roper, supra, at 563. Consensus is not dispositive, however. Whether the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime also depends on the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and on the Court’s own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s text, history, meaning, and purpose. Pp. 8–10.

   2. A review of the authorities informed by contemporary norms, including the history of the death penalty for this and other nonhomicide crimes, current state statutes and new enactments, and the number of executions since 1964, demonstrates a national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape. Pp. 11–23.

      (a) The Court follows the approach of cases in which objective indicia of consensus demonstrated an opinion against the death penalty for juveniles, see Roper, supra, mentally retarded offenders, see Atkins, supra, and vicarious felony murderers, see Enmund, supra. Thirty-seven jurisdictions—36 States plus the Federal Government—currently impose capital punishment, but only six States authorize it for child rape. In 45 jurisdictions, by contrast, petitioner could not be executed for child rape of any kind. That number surpasses the 30 States in Atkins and Roper and the 42 in Enmund that prohibited the death penalty under the circumstances those cases considered. Pp. 11–15.

      (b) Respondent’s argument that Coker’s general discussion contrasting murder and rape, 433 U. S., at 598, has been interpreted too expansively, leading some States to conclude that Coker applies to child rape when in fact it does not, is unsound. Coker’s holding was narrower than some of its language read in isolation indicates. The Coker plurality framed the question as whether, “with respect to rape of an adult woman,” the death penalty is disproportionate punishment, id., at 592, and it repeated the phrase “adult woman” or “adult female” eight times in discussing the crime or the victim. The distinction between adult and child rape was not merely rhetorical; it was central to Coker’s reasoning, including its analysis of legislative consensus. See, e.g., id., at 595–596. There is little evidence to support respondent’s contention that state legislatures have understood Coker to state a broad rule that covers minor victims, and state courts have uniformly concluded that Coker did not address that crime. Accordingly, the small number of States that have enacted the death penalty for child rape is relevant to determining whether there is a consensus against capital punishment for the rape of a child. Pp. 15–20.

      (c) A consistent direction of change in support of the death penalty for child rape might counterbalance an otherwise weak demonstration of consensus, see, e.g., Atkins, 536 U. S., at 315, but no showing of consistent change has been made here. That five States may have had pending legislation authorizing death for child rape is not dispositive because it is not this Court’s practice, nor is it sound, to find contemporary norms based on legislation proposed but not yet enacted. Indeed, since the parties submitted their briefs, the legislation in at least two of the five States has failed. Further, evidence that, in the last 13 years, six new death penalty statutes have been enacted, three in the last two years, is not as significant as the data in Atkins, where 18 States between 1986 and 2001 had enacted legislation prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded persons. See id., at 314–315. Respondent argues that this case is like Roper because, there, only five States had shifted their positions between 1989 and 2005, one less State than here. See 543 U. S., at 565. But the Roper Court emphasized that the slow pace of abolition was counterbalanced by the total number of States that had recognized the impropriety of executing juvenile offenders. See id., at 566–567. Here, the fact that only six States have made child rape a capital offense is not an indication of a trend or change in direction comparable to the one in Roper. The evidence bears a closer resemblance to that in Enmund, where the Court found a national consensus against death for vicarious felony murder despite eight jurisdictions having authorized it. See 458 U. S., at 789, 792. Pp. 20–22.

      (d) Execution statistics also confirm that there is a social consensus against the death penalty for child rape. Nine States have permitted capital punishment for adult or child rape for some length of time between the Court’s 1972 Furman decision and today; yet no individual has been executed for the rape of an adult or child since 1964, and no execution for any other nonhomicide offense has been conducted since 1963. Louisiana is the only State since 1964 that has sentenced an individual to death for child rape, and petitioner and another man so sentenced are the only individuals now on death row in the United States for nonhomicide offenses. Pp. 22–23.

   3. Informed by its own precedents and its understanding of the Constitution and the rights it secures, the Court concludes, in its independent judgment, that the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the crime of child rape. Pp. 23–35.

      (a) The Court’s own judgment should be brought to bear on the death penalty’s acceptability under the Eighth Amendment. See, e.g., Coker, supra, at 597. Rape’s permanent and devastating impact on a child suggests moral grounds for questioning a rule barring capital punishment simply because the crime did not result in the victim’s death, but it does not follow that death is a proportionate penalty for child rape. The constitutional prohibition against excessive or cruel and unusual punishments mandates that punishment “be exercised within the limits of civilized standards.” Trop, 356 U. S., at 99–100. Evolving standards of decency counsel the Court to be most hesitant before allowing extension of the death penalty, especially where no life was taken in the commission of the crime. See, e.g., Coker, 433 U. S., at 597–598; Enmund, 458 U. S., at 797. Consistent with those evolving standards and the teachings of its precedents, the Court concludes that there is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individuals, even including child rape, on the other. The latter crimes may be devastating in their harm, as here, but “in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public,” they cannot compare to murder in their “severity and irrevocability,” id, at 598. The Court finds significant the substantial number of executions that would be allowed for child rape under respondent’s approach. Although narrowing aggravators might be used to ensure the death penalty’s restrained application in this context, as they are in the context of capital murder, all such standards have the potential to result in some inconsistency of application. The Court, for example, has acknowledged that the requirement of general rules to ensure consistency of treatment, see, e.g., Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, and the insistence that capital sentencing be individualized, see, e.g., Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, have resulted in tension and imprecision. This approach might be sound with respect to capital murder but it should not be introduced into the justice system where death has not occurred. The Court has spent more than 32 years developing a foundational jurisprudence for capital murder to guide the States and juries in imposing the death penalty. Beginning the same process for crimes for which no one has been executed in more than 40 years would require experimentation in an area where a failed experiment would result in the execution of individuals undeserving of death. Pp. 24–30.

      (b) The Court’s decision is consistent with the justifications offered for the death penalty, retribution and deterrence, see, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 183. Among the factors for determining whether retribution is served, the Court must look to whether the death penalty balances the wrong to the victim in nonhomicide cases. Cf. Roper, supra, at 571. It is not at all evident that the child rape victim’s hurt is lessened when the law permits the perpetrator’s death, given that capital cases require a long-term commitment by those testifying for the prosecution. Society’s desire to inflict death for child rape by enlisting the child victim to assist it over the course of years in asking for capital punishment forces a moral choice on the child, who is not of mature age to make that choice. There are also relevant systemic concerns in prosecuting child rape, including the documented problem of unreliable, induced, and even imagined child testimony, which creates a “special risk of wrongful execution” in some cases. Cf. Atkins, supra, at 321. As to deterrence, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may not result in more effective enforcement, but may add to the risk of nonreporting of child rape out of fear of negative consequences for the perpetrator, especially if he is a family member. And, by in effect making the punishment for child rape and murder equivalent, a State may remove a strong incentive for the rapist not to kill his victim. Pp. 30–35.

   4. The concern that the Court’s holding will effectively block further development of a consensus favoring the death penalty for child rape overlooks the principle that the Eighth Amendment is defined by “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Trop, 356 U. S., at 101. Confirmed by the Court’s repeated, consistent rulings, this principle requires that resort to capital punishment be restrained, limited in its instances of application, and reserved for the worst of crimes, those that, in the case of crimes against individuals, take the victim’s life. P. 36.

957 So. 2d 757, reversed and remanded.

   Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding
Only crimes that result in death or crimes against the state can expose a criminal defendant to capital punishment, since applying the death penalty to individuals convicted of any other offense violates the Eighth Amendment.
Louisiana permitted capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12 years old. Patrick Kennedy was convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter in so violent a manner that she needed invasive emergency surgery to correct her injuries. Unwisely refusing to plead guilty in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, Kennedy maintained his innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He was sentenced to death and was unsuccessful in persuading the Louisiana Supreme Court on appeal that child rape was not a sufficiently serious crime to warrant capital punishment.

At the time, five states in addition to Louisiana still had laws permitting capital punishment for defendants convicted of this crime. However, only one other individual in the United States, also in Louisiana, was facing a death sentence for child rape. Not since 1964 had anyone in the U.S. been executed for any form of rape.

Procedural History

Louisiana Supreme Court - 957 So.2d 757 (La. 2007)

Affirmed. Instead of relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Coker v. Georgia, which struck down a death sentence based on the rape of an adult woman, the Court found that there was no national consensus against the imposition of capital punishment for the rape of a child. It also found that the punishment was not excessive, stating that children are much more vulnerable than adults and that the violent rape of a child merits a punishment more severe than conventional rape.

  • Jeffrey L. Fisher (defendant)
  • Juliet L. Clark (prosecution)



  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

If only six states retained the death penalty for a certain crime, the majority found, no national consensus could be said to exist in favor of capital punishment. The Court looked back to both Coker v. Georgia and Roper v. Simmons to shape its evaluation of whether the death penalty was proportionate to the death of a child. It drew a sharp line separating crimes intended to result and resulting in death from all other crimes, except treason and other crimes against the state. The majority echoed Coker in finding that any form of rape could not be compared with murder in severity.

The majority made a minor error in finding that no federal jurisdiction permitted the death penalty for child rape, when in fact this was the penalty in the U.S. military. When the mistake was discovered, a petition for rehearing was filed but denied.


  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas

Questioning the breadth of the majority's ruling, Alito argued that it had stepped beyond the proper boundaries of the judicial role and that its standard of determining a national consensus was unreliable. He found that the majority's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment gave courts too much authority to strike down laws on constitutional grounds according to their perception of public opinion.

Case Commentary

Only the most extreme offenders should be sentenced to death, when the goals of retribution and deterrence are most strongly implicated. Also, children may not benefit from a harsh law against abusers, since people may be less likely to disclose the conduct when the potential penalties are so severe.

This decision was harshly criticized by politicians on both sides of partisan lines, including President Barack Obama. A Republican Senator introduced a resolution designed to expressly state the Senate's disapproval of Kennedy v. Louisiana and urge overruling it, but it was not passed. Kennedy's case was remanded for resentencing, and he is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, which has become the mandatory penalty for this crime.

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