Wednesday, June 25, 2008
This is the time of year for decisions to be issued by The Supreme Court of the United States. First things first, as this happens notice if you will the number of 5 to 4 decisions. And, as you look at those remember how important it is to elect Barack Obama in November.
In today's ruling the court struck down in a 5-4 decision a Louisiana law that had authorized the death penalty for anyone who rapes a child under the age of 12. Of 3,300 inmates on death row across the country, only two face capital punishment for a crime other than murder. Both were convicted under Louisiana's law, the broadest in the land. There has not been an execution for rape in the United States since 1964.
I have mixed feelings about many things. The novels of William Faulkner, all the records released by Bob Dylan between 1981 and 1997, Barry Bonds, Mexican beers, how many speeds a bicycle really needs, and so on.
I do not have mixed feelings about the death penalty. There are people in the world I'd gladly see leave it with no trace of remorse. When people ask "Who gets to make that decision?" my answer is "We do."
But, while I have no problem with the idea of putting some people down like we do with vicious dogs, I am opposed to the death penalty in practice.
In order to support capital punishment you have to be OK with the idea that we will occasionally execute the wrong person. I'm not. It's that simple.
But I digress.
Today's decision dealt with the execution of child rapists. Again, I have no moral qualms with the idea in theory. Want to make the world a better place? Take a child rapist.... zzzzap! There. One better.
So I understand Justice Alito's argument in his dissent in which he denounced the court's "sweeping conclusion'' that the death penalty is inappropriate "no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted and no matter how heinous the perpetrator's criminal record may be.''
I am, however, troubled that four of the Justices apparently went through law school without the notion of the "slippery slope" coming up, even once. It would not bother me if you killed the child rapist, nor would it bother me if you killed the child abuser. If someone beats and tortures a child but neglects to rape him or her, is that somehow "better"? Why does the monster who rapes the 11 year old get the needle while the one who rapes the 12 year old get to check out books from the prison library? What about people who torture animals? How about a show of hands from all of us who would miss Michael Vick even if we noticed he was gone.
Not only does the idea of the slippery slope inform the majority opinion, but I have to think it is somehow also informed by the arguments presented to the Michigan legislature by the National Organization of Women when they petitioned to have the penalties for rape decreased.
You read that right. N.O.W. asked the Michigan legislature to reduce the penalty for rape.
Too often the crime of rape is reduced to one person's word against another's. Obviously this isn't true for children where the court accepts that a 9 year old cannot consent to sex. But when the accuser and defendant are adults, it's a different matter.
What N.O.W. saw was that the states that had the most draconian penalties for rape also had the lowest conviction rates. In Michigan, where rape was a capital crime, juries were as hesitant to convict a defendant in rape cases as they were in murder cases and rape cases rarely had the same kinds of evidence required to remove reasonable doubt.
In other words, all rapists, including those who target children, are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms when the death penalty is off the table.
That four of the nine people who sit on the nation's highest court couldn't see that is just one more piece of evidence in accessing damage that eight years of Republican rule has done to America.