Jessica's Law faces critical test
Supreme Court review may affect state law allowing the execution of child sex offenders
By PEGGY FIKAC
AUSTIN — The U.S. Supreme Court's review of whether the death penalty can be imposed against a Louisiana man convicted of raping a child will reverberate in Texas, which just last year passed its own law targeting those who prey on children.
How the court rules may determine whether Texas can implement the death-penalty portion of Jessica's Law, named after Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and buried alive.
A convicted sex offender was found guilty in Jessica's murder, spurring some states, including Texas, to examine their laws punishing sex offenders.
Texas' law adds the death penalty as an option in cases in which someone for a second time has been convicted of aggravated sexual assault against a child under 14. The other possible penalty would be life without parole.
The Texas law also strengthens other sections of the law against aggravated sexual assault of children, including by providing for minimum sentences of 25 years.
Some worried whether imposing the death penalty against an offender who hasn't committed murder would pass constitutional muster. A clause in the law provides that the rest of it will stand if the death penalty portion is found unconstitutional.
"We believed then, and we believe now, that that bill, which is now a law, is absolutely constitutional and should withstand the scrutiny of anyone, including the Supreme Court," said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who pushed the bill in the House.
"However, ... we did put a firewall in there so that it would not affect the punishment in the rest of the bill" or the death penalty as it applies to other crimes in Texas, Riddle said.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who worked on the Texas legislation, considers child rape to be a crime so heinous that the argument can be made that it is more damaging than murder.
At the same time, he didn't support putting the death penalty in the law because he said that could work against successful prosecution. Children most often are victimized by friends or family members, he said, and they may feel intense pressure against coming forward if their testimony might result in the death penalty.
Bradley sees more strength in the rest of the law. He is prosecuting what appears to be the first case in Texas that was brought under the law, but he is not seeking the death penalty.
The prosecutor said it's good that the Supreme Court is taking up the issue before Texas has a death-penalty prosecution under the law.
"It's a very healthy thing for the Supreme Court to take the case," he said.
Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who favorably cited court rulings narrowing the instances in which the death penalty can be used, said, "It's good timing. We're right at the beginning of the Texas statute. ... It'll be good guidance from the get-go."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who championed the measure, said Texas' law has more requirements for the death penalty than Louisiana.
"The Louisiana case is differentiated from Texas law in that, in Texas the death penalty or life without parole only applies on the second conviction of aggravated rape of a child under the age of 14. If, in the future the Texas law is challenged, Jessica's Law would still give prosecutors the option to seek a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for convicted child molesters," Dewhurst said in a statement.
"Either way, in Texas we are serious about protecting our children from these monsters and will do what it takes to keep them off of the streets and away from our kids," Dewhurst said.
Questions to consider
That distinction could matter depending on the court's decision whether the provision violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
After that question, the case also presents a second one — whether, even if the death penalty is allowed in such cases, the Louisiana law sufficiently narrows the type of defendants who can be executed, said John Holdridge, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project.
The ACLU opposes the death penalty without minimizing the seriousness of the crime, he added.
"Child rape is a very serious crime. I think everyone takes that position," Holdridge said. "We don't think the death penalty is the right way to go about this. We have come to learn that the death penalty is highly error-prone. It's biased against minorities and poor people, and it's really expensive. We should be repealing the death penalty, not expanding its use."
In my opinion Texas has it right.
Fool me once shame on you,
Fool me twice.. You will fry!
You cannot cure sexual proclivity to children.
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