EDITORIALS: Proposed Law Would Harm Younger Victims

The governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, has proposed that his state expand the death penalty to include cases of sexual assault against children where the victim is not killed.  However, according to an editorial in the Springfield News-Leader, such a law would not protect children.  Instead, it could make it less likely that these offenses would be reported, would put the child in danger of even worse crimes, and would involve the child and the family in years of death penalty litigation.  The editorial cites the opinions of a leading child advocate and a prosecutor in urging caution about such a law.  In addition to the significant policy considerations, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether such a law would be constitutional.

The  editorial follows:
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To better protect children, Gov. Matt Blunt says we need a new law allowing child rapists to be executed.

In making his pitch, Blunt continually uses the words "protecting our children."

Unfortunately, no matter how well meaning he might be, the governor's proposed broadening of the application of the death penalty may make it more difficult to protect children.

Legislators have been jumping on the bandwagon, saying they will support a Senate bill sponsored by Jack Goodman, R- Mount Vernon, that calls for anyone convicted of forcible rape or forcible sodomy of a child under 12 to be put to death.

That's somewhat predictable. What sane politician in this state wants to be seen as pro-deviant?

Still, if you listen to those who work most closely on child rape cases, you will learn they have concerns about the proposed law.

Creating a death penalty for child sexual offenders, could, in their view:

- Cause a decrease in calls reporting attacks on children, because those making the reports will fear it could lead to death for the suspect;

- Frighten child victims out of coming forward knowing their accounts could lead to an execution, especially when a case involves a family member;

- Tighten rules of evidence in child rape cases, because flexibility and forgiveness have been built into laws regarding testimony from children;

- Create more scrutiny of convictions, with minor errors taking on more gravity and perhaps triggering new trials and appeals;

- Cause much more time to be expended by prosecutors and, often, publicly funded defense attorneys;

- Force children to spend many more years dealing with a case, because capital cases produce many more appeals;

- Heighten the chance that an offender will kill a victim to avoid being identified.

That latter concern came to mind for Barbara Brown, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center, as she dealt with the case involving the 7-year-old allegedly attacked by Jeffrey Dickson.

He's a 36-year-old Springfield man charged with child kidnapping, forcible rape and two counts of forcible sodomy. Prosecutors say he took the 7-year-old from a Springfield home earlier this month to another home in the city where he drugged her, choked and sexually attacked her, leaving her for dead in a house he set ablaze.

Brown, who has worked with child victims for almost a decade, worries a person who is capable of that kind of vicious attack might not hesitate to inflict fatal injuries if the possible penalty is death anyway.

"It takes away the incentive to leave a child alive," she said.

Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore cited some of the concerns listed above as he offered his opinions on the proposed law. He added he cannot understand why the move has been made to try to broaden Missouri's use of capital punishment at a time when questions of the constitutionality of a similar law are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in a Louisiana case.

Should the court rule unfavorably toward expansion of the penalty in that case, work by Missouri's lawmakers will be moot.

If the legislature is doing more than just posturing with its talk of a death penalty for child rapists, lawmakers must first engage in serious, analytical discussion with those most directly affected: child advocates, prosecutors and police.

Viewed in simple terms, the question of being for or against punishment for those who would terrorize, hurt and seek callous pleasure from children is easy.

But this is far from a simple issue.

Those who deal with it judicially know that. Those who deal with it legislatively ought to know it, too.

(Editorial, "Execution of child rapists will not protect our children," Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader, April 28, 2008).  See Kennedy v. Louisiana and Recent Legislation.