Florida lawmakers pursue DeSantis-backed law expanding death penalty to child rape cases

by mcardinal

Matt Bush, FISM News

Legislation that would expand the death penalty in Florida to include sexual battery on children under the age of 12 has cleared the Senate rules committee and is scheduled to be taken up by the House on Thursday.

If HB 1297 and SB 1342 pass through the House and Senate, as they are expected to do, it is widely expected that Gov. Ron DeSantis would sign it into law.

“These people don’t care. They are unrepentant,” DeSantis said of sexual predators during a Jan. 28 appearance in Miami. “I believe the only appropriate punishment that would be commensurate to that would be capital.”

The passage of these laws would defy decades of Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. If passed it would assuredly make its way to the Supreme Court for a ruling as it would create a new precedent on what crimes can carry a death penalty. A Senate staff analysis shows that “nobody has been executed for a non-murder crime in the United States since 1964.”

According to the Library of Congress, in the 2008 case Kennedy v. Louisiana, “the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S. Constitution bars the death penalty for child rape.”

That case involved a man in Louisiana who was convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter. In its ruling, the court found that “the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for child rape, and that capital punishment should be restricted, as to crimes against individuals, to those that take the victim’s life.”

The House and Senate bills in Florida, however, argue that the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case as well as a similar case ruled on in 1981 in the Florida Supreme Court were wrongfully decided. SB 1342 contends that “such cases are an egregious infringement of the state’s power to punish the most heinous of crimes.”

“If an individual rapes an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old, they should be subject to the death penalty,” said Senate bill sponsor Jonathan Martin. 

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Democrat, had a unique perspective on the bill as she is a survivor of child sexual assault. During a committee meeting, she gave a passionate speech relaying her daily struggle with the trauma of sexual assault.

“There is no statute of limitations that a victim suffers. This is a life sentence that is handed down to young children. We’re talking about the youngest of the young in this bill,” said Book. “I was one of those kids. I still to this day at … 38 years old deal with the very, very real lasting effects of this crime. It never goes away. Sometimes you close your eyes and you see it. I don’t get a chance to make it stop.”

While the bills have received bipartisan support, there are still some who say that the bill is more about vengeance than lawfulness. 

“While this crime, anyone convicted of it is vile, heinous, the Constitution itself, the case law, and the Supreme Court demands a maximum of life in prison. And so while it’s not the vengeance we all want, it’s the justice that the Constitution demands,” Aaron Wayt from the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said. Wayt is also a victim of childhood abuse.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the 2008 case that is cited as precedent, but the current Supreme Court has a more conservative-leaning ideology than it did then.