The history of the death penalty in the USA has been long and arduous. As a matter of fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capital punishment was a common means of punishment for a wide array of crimes ranging from rape, arson and even theft of horses. The push for the abolition of the death penalty mainly led by religious groups has equally had a long history since the era of European settlement on the continent. The populace of the United States has generally been in support of the death penalty though it has to be gainsaid that the abolitionists too have had their successes for instance Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1847 which was followed up by other states in the ensuing 160 years (Foster & Nelson, 2000).
Even though capital punishment in the United States falls under the jurisdiction of the state courts, the Supreme Court has been a major player in the interpretation of the constitutionality of the death penalty as practiced in the states. The Supreme Court in the 1930s intervened severally to overturn death penalties which were believed to be racially motivated. The 5-4 decision in Georgia versus Furman ruled capital punishment to be cruel and an unusual punishment. Therefore this type of punishment was in violation of the eighth amendment which guarantees equal protection of all citizens. Though the decision in Furman Versus Louisiana was differential, the general opinion of the judges was that legislations of the states concerning the death penalty were so arbitrary as not to guarantee the fair and uniform application of the death penalty. The court in addition established that instructions given to juries were in most instances unclear and technical leading to differential outcomes even in cases involving similar fundamentals.
In another landmark case, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the statute relied on by the Louisiana state courts in condemning a man to death for child rape. In Kennedy versus Louisiana the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence a person to death on a crime in which the victim did not die. The statute was considered to be against national consensus on sentencing to death only on the grounds of commission of the worst crimes such as murder and treason. As result any person on death row for any crime other than murder or treason was not worthy of death (Foster & Nelson, 2000).
The court took note that Patrick Kennedy had been condemned to death by a statute common in only six of the fifty states. Justice Kennedy Anthony giving a ruling for the majority said that basing on the consensus and the judges own autonomous judgement, the opinion is that capital punishment for a person who raped but did not kill or assist another in killing the child was against the Fourteenth and Eighth constitutional amendments. The court ruled that the ruling in the Louisiana courts posed danger of a bad precedent of allowing death in cases of no murder commission. The Supreme Court judges acknowledged that allowing such rulings would inevitably lead to societal descent into violence and cruelty which is against the constitutional obligation to moderation and decency.
Child advocates and victims’ groups concurred with the decision against condemning Kennedy to death by acknowledging that contrary action would harmful rather than helpful to the protection of victims. They agreed that the death penalty could lead to a decrease in reporting of abuse, re-victimization brought about by long appeal processes. They also concurred that the equation of rape to murder would inculcate a wrong perception in the minds of the victims (Foster & Nelson, 2000).