Friday, 6 April 2007

How Far Will the Death Penalty Reach?

How Far Will the Death Penalty Reach?

That's the title of the latest post at ACS Blog, one of the Essential Law Blogs in the left-column weblog, reporting on Jessica's Law proposals in Texas. LINK One minor correction; Texas has executed 390 men and women to date.

Texas uses the death penalty more often than any other state in the union; since 1976, it has executed 389 people. At the same time, though, alarming questions have been raised about the accuracy of its criminal adjudications. In Dallas, for instance, the district attorney's office is allowing the Innocence Project to review 350 cases for claims of factual innocence.

The Texas legislature may nonetheless expand the reach of its death penalty, as it is currently considering a bill that would make second-offense child molesters death-eligible. The bill, authored by Rep. Debbie Riddle, passed through the house on March 6. It still needs to go through the senate and governor's office before it becomes law. Ms. Riddle noted that the law's passage would ensure “that the worst of the worst will suffer serious consequences for the abuse of any child.”

The editorial board of the Austin American-Statesmen contends that this bill is an appeal to the electorate and will not make children safer:

It hardly matters to supporters of the bill . . . that [its use of] the death penalty is probably unconstitutional. Nor did they heed advice that the threat of execution might well lead molesters to kill their victims. Texas legislators easily could have kept repeat sexual abusers of children off the streets with a penalty of life without parole on second conviction. Apparently, it was much more satisfying to assign the ultimate punishment of death for that category of crime. Plus, it is a tailor-made campaign issue for the next election.

The editorial board implicitly refers to Coker v. Georgia, in which the United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty must be proportional and thus cannot be used to punish the rape of an adult. In Coker, the Court seemed to suggest that the death penalty can only be imposed where the defendant has been convicted of murder:

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