So writes Justice Kennedy in Kennedy v. Louisiana. Searching for "evolving standards of decency," Kennedy expresses concern about the sheer number of crimes that would be subject to the death penalty:
In reaching our conclusion we find significant the number of executions that would be allowed under respondent’s approach. The crime of child rape, considering its reported incidents, occurs more often than first-degree murder. Approximately 5,702 incidents of vaginal, anal, or oral rape of a child under the age of 12 were reported nationwide in 2005; this is almost twice the total incidents of intentional murder for victims of all ages (3,405) reported during the same period.Why isn't the high incidence of child rape a reason to up the penalty so that fewer children will be raped? Now that the death penalty for child rape has been held unconstitutional, will we see the number of rapes increase?
With respect to deterrence, if the death penalty adds to the risk of non-reporting, that, too, diminishes the penalty’s objectives. Underreporting is a common problem with respect to child sexual abuse. ...So isn't this the sort of balancing that is normally left to legislative choice? Kennedy says it's still a factor that the Court should take into account in analyzing whether the death penalty is constitutional.
The experience of the amici who work with child victims indicates that, when the punishment is death, both the victim and the victim’s family members may be more likely to shield the perpetrator from discovery, thus increasing underreporting....
In addition, by in effect making the punishment for child rape and murder equivalent, a State that punishes child rape by death may remove a strong incentive for the rapist not to kill the victim. Assuming the offender behaves in a rational way, as one must to justify the penalty on grounds of deterrence, the penalty in some respects gives less protection, not more, to the victim, who is often the sole witness to the crime.... It might be argued that, even if the death penalty results in a marginal increase in the incentive to kill, this is counterbalanced by a marginally increased deterrent to commit the crime at all.
ADDED: In dissent, Justice Alito (joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas) emphasizes the breadth of the decision:
The Court today holds that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for the crime of raping a child. This is so, according to the Court, 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 prior criminal record may be. The Court provides two reasons for this sweeping conclusion: First, the Court claims to have identified “a national consensus” that the death penalty is never acceptable for the rape of a child; second, the Court concludes, based on its “independent judgment,” that imposing the death penalty for child rape is inconsistent with “ ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’ ”AND: Alito notes that the Court's decision in Coker v. Georgia (invalidating the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman) created uncertainty and impeded the states development of the law and distorted the evidence of "consensus":
When state lawmakers believe that their decision will prevail on the question whether to permit the death penalty for a particular crime or class of offender, the legislators’ resolution of the issue can be interpreted as an expression of their own judgment, informed by whatever weight they attach to the values of their constituents. But when state legislators think that the enactment of a new death penalty law is likely to be futile, inaction cannot reasonably be interpreted as an expression of their understanding of prevailing societal values.The majority is really imposing its own "evolving standards of decency" to the question, Alito says. In this context, he questions whether it is"really true that every person who is convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death is more morally depraved than every child rapist.""
Consider the following two cases. In the first, a defendant robs a convenience store and watches as his accomplice shoots the store owner. The defendant acts recklessly, but was not the triggerman and did not intend the killing. See, e.g., Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137 (1987) . In the second case, a previously convicted child rapist kidnaps, repeatedly rapes, and tortures multiple child victims. Is it clear that the first defendant is more morally depraved than the second?(Wouldn't anyone voting with today's majority have voted with the dissent in Tison?)
... I have little doubt that, in the eyes of ordinary Americans, the very worst child rapists—predators who seek out and inflict serious physical and emotional injury on defenseless young children—are the epitome of moral depravity....Alito elaborates the harm.
It's important that the majority also took the harm very seriously. This was not like Coker, where the Court was clueless enough to write, about the 16-year-old "adult" victim: "Mrs. Carver was unharmed."
Justice Kennedy does not gloss over the horrific harm to the child:
Petitioner’s crime was one that cannot be recounted in these pages in a way sufficient to capture in full the hurt and horror inflicted on his victim or to convey the revulsion society, and the jury that represents it, sought to express by sentencing petitioner to death....Nevertheless, in Kennedy's view, capital punishment is not "proportionate" to the crime in light of "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
An expert in pediatric forensic medicine testified that L. H.’s injuries were the most severe he had seen from a sexual assault in his four years of practice. A laceration to the left wall of the vagina had separated her cervix from the back of her vagina, causing her rectum to protrude into the vaginal structure. Her entire perineum was torn from the posterior fourchette to the anus. The injuries required emergency surgery....
[T]he victim’s fright, the sense of betrayal, and the nature of her injuries caused more prolonged physical and mental suffering than, say, a sudden killing by an unseen assassin. The attack was not just on her but on her childhood. For this reason, we should be most reluctant to rely upon the language of the plurality in Coker, which posited that, for the victim of rape, “life may not be nearly so happy as it was” but it is not beyond repair. Rape has a permanent psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical impact on the child.... We cannot dismiss the years of long anguish that must be endured by the victim of child rape.
It is an established principle that decency, in its essence, presumes respect for the individual and thus moderation or restraint in the application of capital punishment....It's very hard to find any argument about the depravity of this criminal act. What I see in Kennedy's opinion is mainly opposition to the death penalty and a fear of expanding it into a new area where it would need to be constrained by the kind of "narrowing aggravators" that restrict the death penalty in murder cases. Kennedy is particularly concerned that the crime of child rape "will overwhelm a decent person’s judgment," that this crime — more than murder — will make juries irrational and arbitrary. In any case, he tells us, the process of juries evaluating aggravating factors is well established. It's one thing to accept that, quite another to extend the process into a whole new area.
[We] insist upon confining the instances in which capital punishment may be imposed....
As it relates to crimes against individuals, ... the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken....
[T]here is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons, even including child rape, on the other....
So, for the death penalty and child rape, juries cannot be trusted, and legislatures cannot be trusted. This is one decision that the Court has seen fit to place in the judicial domain.