Thursday, June 26, 2008

Let them Lead Lives of Quiet Contemplation

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, struck down the law under which Patrick Kennedy (who is not related to the Supreme Court Justice) was sentenced to death. Kennedy was convicted of raping his 8 year old stepdaughter, and Louisiana is one of six states that, until yesterday, allowed the imposition of the death sentence for child rape.

Now, officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states across the South, where all six of these states sit, are looking for ways to get around the ruling. The opinion essentially said that it is unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime where the victim did not die. "We cannot sanction this result [execution] when the harm to the victim, though grave, cannot be quantified in the same way as death of the victim." Harm to a victim can never be calculated in any comprehensive or convincing way. The closest we can ever come to accurately calculating the damage done is the binary "is the victim alive or dead" calculation. Otherwise, we risk imposing the death penalty in an arbitrary manner, which the Supreme Court has over and over again declared unconstitutional and in violation of the 8th Amendment.

For officials to try to find a way around the court's ruling is repugnant to the theory of justice that we operate under as a society. Yes, laws can change, but the Court did not just strike down the individual laws of six different states. The Court struck down the idea that a death sentence could be imposed for anything other than a crime where the victim died.

Besides, spending the rest of his life in a Louisiana prison is not going to be a walk in the park for Patrick Kennedy. The lowest person on the totem pole of prison life is not the former law enforcement official, nor is it the snitch. The lowest person on the totem pole is the child molester, child abuser, and the child rapist. Life in prison is never easy, but if your crime included harming a child, it is even harder.

The death penalty is not an incentive to not commit crimes. Justice Kennedy even wrote in the opinion that restricting the imposition of the death sentence to crimes where the victim died could help preserve the life of a rape victim, as otherwise there may be no reason for the rapist to not kill.

Death is different. The Supreme Court has this for decades, in case after case. We treat it differently when it is caused, and we consider it differently when there is the possibility of it being imposed.

So, here is my message to officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia: Let Patrick Kennedy and his ilk sit in prison for the rest of their lives. Throw away the key and let them live out their days away from society. There is no need, little purpose, and rarely, if ever, closure when a perpetrator no longer breaths. Lock them up and forget about them. Better to let them spend the rest of their natural time considering their own horror, locked away from public consciousness, rather than putting them front and center, like a supernova, burning bright at the height of public awareness before blinking out and leaving the victim to deal with the crime on their own all over again. And above all else, better to respect the rule of law and the principles of justice, rather then to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of temporary local satisfaction over national consensus and conscience.