HomeLocal News

Tennessee bill to allow death penalty for child rape in passes first legislative hurdle

From the Tennessean: Tennessee could become one of the few states to permit capital punishment for rape of a child under 12.   House Bill

From the Tennessean: Tennessee could become one of the few states to permit capital punishment for rape of a child under 12.


House Bill 1663, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would allow juries to impose the death penalty on adults convicted of raping a child under 12, with certain aggravating factors. The bill passed a first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, sailing through the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Subcommittee by voice vote.


“I don’t take this bill lightly,” Lamberth told a House committee on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re going to protect our children in the state of Tennessee. If someone rapes one of our children, they forfeit their own life.”


“Life in prison for these evil people is simply too good,” he added, noting that life imprisonment makes taxpayers responsible for food, medical, and housing for the prisoners.


Tennessee is one of 27 states that allows capital punishment, and currently does not allow capital punishment for non-homicide crimes. Only seven other states allow the death penalty for certain child rape offenses.


In 2008, the Supreme Court barred states from allowing a death sentence for the rape of a child when the crime does not involve the victim’s death, finding that applying the death penalty in such cases would amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” In that decision, the court noted that Louisiana is the only state since 1964 that has placed anyone on death row for a non-homicide offense.


Gov. Bill Lee has paused executions in Tennessee pending correction to the state’s systemic problems with its execution protocol.


Florida passed a similar law last year allowing the death penalty for child rape, defying the Supreme Court’s decision. Tennessee could soon follow suit.


Lamberth said Tuesday that he anticipates a legal challenge if his bill is successful, and pledged to fight in the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to restore the state’s ability to determine penalties for such a heinous crime.


“It is something that the states should absolutely be able to do. … Not enough states have this type of penalty on the books,” Lamberth said. “Here in the state of Tennessee, I think we should value our children and we should protect them from these type of predators.”


Lamberth won support from Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, who said the proposal appears to be “an attempt at reclaiming the 10th amendment of the Constitution,” which reserves rights not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution to the states, or to the people.


But Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, noted that offenders convicted of child rape in Tennessee are already required to serve 100% of their life sentence.


Johnson said she has heard from victims groups who are concerned that allowing capital punishment could make prosecuting child rape cases more difficult, and could deter already-hesitant rape victims from reporting crimes – particularly when committed by family members.


“Victims fear that it will create a chilling effect on reporting,” Johnson said.


Lamberth said that he had heard directly from several victims. He then read aloud a letter from a victim of child sexual abuse.


“The wounds are unimaginable and the scars run deep,” the victim wrote, who pleaded with lawmakers to support the bill. “These are not crimes that victims are able to heal from and move on with their lives. These crimes change children forever.”


The victim, whom Lamberth did not name, said that child rape offenders rarely see significant punishment for their actions.


“The ones that are convicted are typically released quickly or given lesser charges so they are right back out doing the same things they were doing. Never missing a single beat, they stack up victims as if they were at an all-you-can-eat buffet with the appetite of a bear coming out of hibernation, and they only have access to a single plate,” the victim wrote. “The ones that actually get convicted should face real consequences.”


The bill now moves to the full House Criminal Justice Committee. It has not yet seen a vote in the Senate, where it is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin.


“This is not vengeance,” Lamberth said. “This is justice, and it is deterrence.”