In deciding whether the death penalty for child rape is cruel and unusual, is it relevant that Louisiana is the only state that punishes child rape with death?
The trial began in August 2003. L. H. was then 13 years old. She testified that she “woke up one morning and Patrick was on top of her.” She remembered Kennedy bringing her “a cup of orange juice and pills chopped up in it” after the rape and overhearing him on the telephone saying she had become a “young lady.” L. H. acknowledged that she had accused two neighborhood boys but testified Kennedy told her to say this and that it was untrue. After the jury found Kennedy guilty of aggravated rape, the penalty phase ensued. The jury unanimously determined that Kennedy should be sentenced to death. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed. We granted certiorari.
The Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive or cruel and unusual punishments flows from the basic precept of justice that punishment for a crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense. Whether this requirement has been fulfilled is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791 but by the norms that currently prevail. The Amendment draws its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
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. In these cases the Court has been guided by objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice with respect to executions. Whether the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime committed depends as well upon the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and by the Court’s own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s text, history, meaning, and purpose.