New Tennessee Law Allows State to Pursue Death Penalty for Convicted Child Rapists

Rachel Acenas
By Rachel Acenas
June 19, 2024US News
New Tennessee Law Allows State to Pursue Death Penalty for Convicted Child Rapists
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee at the White House on April 30, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

A Tennessee law is set to go into effect, which allows the death penalty sentence for convicted child rapists.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee approved the legislation in May but did not release a statement upon signing it.

Introduced by Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland), the new law “authorizes the death penalty as a punishment for rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, or especially aggravated rape of a child,” according to SB1834/HR1663. The convicted child rapist must be at least 18 years old.

The new law will go into effect July 1.

Florida passed a similar law last year, which also applies to cases with victims under 12 years old.

“These are really the worst of the worst,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said when he signed it into law. “The perpetrators of these crimes are often serial offenders,” the governor added.

Both Tennessee and Florida laws are considered direct challenges to Supreme Court precedent, which holds the death penalty unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes.

But the Florida bill “sets up a procedure to be able to challenge that precedent,” according to Mr. DeSantis.

NTD Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Feb. 19, 2024. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Similarly, Tennessee lawmakers hope that the Supreme Court would reverse its ruling on the death penalty for convicted rapists, noting that it took decades to overturn the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade.

In its 2008 ruling in Kennedy v Louisiana, the nation’s highest court said that the death penalty was disproportionate to the crime of rape.

“When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint,” the justices wrote in its ruling.

Opponents believe that imposing the death penalty on child rape convicts would further traumatize victims.

“It doesn’t help [victims] heal. And it also doesn’t ensure that folks come forward. We can do the same thing through other means. There is no need to take this step,” Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said to lawmakers in April in opposition to the legislation, adding that “of course child rape is horrifying” and a crime nobody should endure.

Thirty percent of child sex abuse victims are abused by family members, and 90 percent of victims know their abuser, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway. Critics believe the new legislation will make it more difficult for victims to come forward to report family members.

Mr. Lamberth disagreed with the notion that the legislation would deter victims from sounding the alarm on their perpetrators. During his statement to lawmakers in support of the legislation, he read a letter from a rape victim who claimed that he would agree to the death penalty even for his grandfather, who allegedly molested “many generations” of the family.

Death Penalty Moratorium

While the new Tennessee law is set to go into effect in July, currently, all executions remain on hold as officials review the state’s lethal injection process.

Mr. Lee issued a moratorium on the death penalty in May 2022 after state officials failed to test execution drugs for bacterial contamination. The moratorium halted the execution of convicted murderer Oscar Franklin Smith the day he was set to be executed by lethal injection.

The governor also called for an independent review of the state’s execution protocol to address the oversight of execution drugs. He also said the state would not move forward with five executions, which were supposed to be carried out between June and December 2022.