The Eighth Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. The Eighth Amendment proscribes all excessive punishments, as well as cruel and unusual punishments that may or may not be excessive. The United States Supreme Court explained in Atkins and Roper that 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 Eighth Amendment draws its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. This is because the standard of extreme cruelty is not merely descriptive, but necessarily embodies a moral judgment. The standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change.
Petitioner was sentenced to death under La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:42 after he was convicted for the aggravated rape of his eight-year-old stepdaughter. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana rejected petitioner's argument that the death penalty for the rape of a child under 12 years was disproportionate, and it upheld the constitutionality of La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:42 under the Eighth Amendment.
Is the law imposing capital punishment for child rape unconstitutional?
The Court, held that U.S. Const. amend. VIII barred respondent, the State of Louisiana, from imposing the death penalty on petitioner. Based both on consensus and its own independent judgment, the Court held that a death sentence for one who raped but did not kill a child, and who did not intend to assist another in killing the child, was unconstitutional under U.S. Const. amends. VIII and XIV. After reviewing the history of the death penalty for the crime of child rape, current state statutes and new enactments, and the number of executions since 1964, the Court concluded that there was a national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape. The Court also concluded in its independent judgment that the death penalty was not a proportional punishment for the crime of child rape. The Court found that its decision was consistent with the justifications offered for the death penalty: retribution and deterrence.