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More Calls for Death Penalty in Child Rapes

Times Staff Writer

With the election just a month away, politicians examining ways to stop violent sexual offenders from striking again are increasingly calling for laws that would allow states to execute repeat child molesters.

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is the latest to join the effort, proposing a plan Oct. 3 that would require a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 25 years for first-time offenders and the possibility of death for a second conviction.

If enacted, the measure “will protect the children of Texas, and let people know to get out of our state if this is your sickness,” Dewhurst campaign spokesman Enrique Marquez said. “If that’s something you want to do, not in our state you won’t.”

In recent months, similar ideas have been pushed by lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and even Minnesota, which doesn’t have the death penalty. Most are modeled after Florida’s Jessica’s Law, a child-protection measure named for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and killed by a registered sex offender in 2005.

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This year, Oklahoma and South Carolina passed laws allowing the death penalty for the rape of a child. Execution is also an option for offenders who commit certain sex crimes against children in Montana and Louisiana.

Critics say that if child sex crimes are a capital offense, victims might be reluctant to report abuse because the offenders often are family members. “If you’ve got a father or brother or uncle molesting a young person, a lot of people aren’t going to turn them in if it means they’ll be sent to jail or put to death,” said Michael Mears, director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.

Another concern is that the measures might give assailants an incentive to kill the victim. “If the penalty for murder and molestation is the same, why not go ahead and kill the only witness to the event?” Mears said.

David Bruck, a law professor who directs the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., has the same concern. “To the extent that this is meant to be a way of protecting children, it may well have the opposite effect,” he said.

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But legislators such as Jay Paul Gumm -- the state senator who sponsored Oklahoma’s child sex crime bill -- said that a person who would rape a child has no regard for life under any circumstance. “Anybody who would prey on the innocence of a child and destroy a soul is more than deserving of the death penalty in my way of thinking,” Gumm said. “These are crimes that have lifelong effects on the victims. Some never have a normal life. It destroys life as surely as a gun to the head.”

Louisiana houses the only death row inmate convicted of a child rape that did not result in murder. Patrick Kennedy, convicted in 2003 of raping an 8-year-old girl, was sentenced under a 1995 law that allows the death penalty for the rape of a child younger than 12. His case is on appeal.

In 1996, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the state’s death penalty law for child rapists. But the Kennedy case could end in a showdown if it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court: In 1977, the high court held that a person convicted of the rape of a woman could not be sentenced to death because the punishment would be out of proportion with the crime.

“It’s cruel and unusual punishment,” Bruck said. "[Child rape] is a terrible crime, but it ain’t murder.”

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Bruck said an attention-grabbing proposal to kill child sex offenders is like “political crack cocaine. It attracts publicity and people’s attention at a very visceral level” but in the end, he said, does little good.

But Gumm, the Oklahoma legislator, denied that such legislation was an election-year gimmick. “Public opinion in my district and this state is extraordinarily positive toward this law,” he said.

“People have grown sick and tired of instances where child molesters have gotten out of prison only to molest again,” Gumm said. “This sends a message that this behavior will not be tolerated, and we are going to find you, prosecute you and exact the most severe punishment possible.”

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lianne.hart@latimes.com


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