Sentencing Coker v. Georgia to Death: Capital Child Rape Statutes Provide the Supreme Court an Opportunity to Return Meaning to the Eighth Amendment

Matthew Silversten, Sentencing Coker v. Georgia to Death: Capital Child Rape Statutes Provide the Supreme Court an Opportunity to Return Meaning to the Eighth Amendment, 37 Gonz. L. Rev. 121 (2002).

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In 1995, Louisiana’s legislature passed a statute that gave prosecutors the discretion to seek the death penalty against defendants convicted of child rape. For example, the legislature decided that an HIV positive man who raped three girls, between the ages ranging from five to nine years old, one of whom was his daughter, should be punished by death or life imprisonment. In 1999, the Georgia legislature passed similar legislation making Georgia the second state in four years to declare child rape a death penalty eligible offense. Although both of the statutes were debated and drafted by members of the Louisiana and Georgia legislatures and were signed into law by each state’s governor, the fate of the statutes is still very much in doubt because one United States Supreme Court case authorizes the Court to act as a final arbiter of state criminal sanctions.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits state governments from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments.” For most of our country’s history, the meaning of the Eighth Amendment remained consistent with the original understanding of the amendment as it was enacted in 179 1. This consistency began to deteriorate in 1910 when the Supreme Court seemingly began to read additional limitations of a state government’s ability to sanction its citizens into the Eighth Amendment. For the past ninety years, the Supreme Court has continued to move away from the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment and ultimately created a provision, in Coker, that allowed it to act as the ultimate arbiter of criminal sanctions for the country. . . . Read More

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