Vengeance is Whose?

Several states now have laws making sexual assault of children a death-penalty offense, even if the victim is not murdered as well. One man in Louisiana has actually been sent to death row on this basis. The Supreme Court just agreed to review his case to see if the penalty is constitutional. LaShawn Barber hopes they uphold the sentence.

Any sort of sexual assault on a child is, of course, a heinous offense and the impulse for vengeance is understandable. Yet like most impulsive decisions, it's also wrong and potentially counterproductive. I explained why here some time ago.

Among other reasons, consider this: in most cases of rape there are no witnesses except the victim. If we make the rape itself a capital crime, then what incentive do we create for the rapist? Answer: kill your victim. If he's lucky he will get away with the crime because now there are no witnesses. If he gets caught anyway, then he is no worse off because the additional crime of murder brings no added punishment. The only one who is worse off is the victim, who now gets to die after being raped.

The deterrent effect of such laws is also questionable. Anyone who would rape an eight-year-old girl, as the man in the Louisiana case did, isn't thinking clearly in the first place and probably has some kind of mental illness. Even if they are able to cognitively process the existence of such laws, the prospect of execution doesn't seem likely to stop them from acting on their perverse desires.

Rape is a crime that is also uniquely vulnerable to false prosecution. Just this week I read (via Mark Shea) about a man from Dallas who served 26 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence now proves he did not commit. When we have prosecutors like Mike Nifong in this country, it's easy to believe some innocent people will be executed as a result of laws like these.

I had a personal brush with the death penalty many years ago and told the story here. I'm not totally against capital punishment - but I think the cases where it is truly justified are extremely rare.


Chelsea said...

Hi there, Patrick! I know you're a Ron Paul supporter. I was wondering if you heard about Fox News excluding him from their Republican roundtable that aired Sunday night: Fox Under Fire for Excluding Ron Paul. I didn't watch it, but apparently the New Hampshire Republican Party withdrew its affiliation with the debate over it.

I also wanted to say thanks for occasionally sharing some of my posts on your sidebar. I always look forward to a new post from you on here! This post reminds me of a hearing I sat in on in our State Senate last session regarding a bill that would require a mandatory death sentence for those convicted of killing any public service worker (police officer, EMT, etc...) in the line of duty. I was actually scared sitting in that hearing room listening to the rationalization for such legislation.

Patrick said...

Hi Chelsea. I'm always glad to link to your posts. You write some really interesting and unique stuff.

I wasn't really surprised at what Fox News did. Sean Hannity and others have been pretty open about their preference for Rudy G. That didn't work so now they are going to Plan B, which for them is Romney. So much for "fair and balanced."