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Tennessee governor OKs bill allowing death penalty for child rape convictions


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has approved legislation allowing the death penalty in child rape convictions, a change the Republican-controlled Statehouse championed amid concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned capital punishment in such cases.

Lee, a Republican, quietly signed off on the legislation last week without issuing a statement.

The new Tennessee law, which goes into effect July 1, authorizes the state to pursue capital punishment when an adult is convicted of aggravated rape of a child. Those convicted could be sentenced to death, imprisonment for life without possibility of parole, or imprisonment for life.

Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted a similar bill nearly a year ago. A few months after being enacted, Florida prosecutors in Lake County announced in December that they were pursuing the death penalty for a man accused of committing sexual battery of a minor under the age of twelve. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the case is considered the first to be pursued under the new law.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s GOP-controlled House approved similar legislation earlier this year, but the proposal eventually stalled in the similarly Republican-dominated Senate.

While many supporters of Tennessee’s version have conceded that even though the Volunteer State previously allowed convicted child rapists to face the death penalty, the Supreme Court ultimately nullified that law with its 2008 decision deeming it unconstitutional to use capital punishment in child sexual battery cases.

However, they hope the conservative-controlled U.S. Supreme Court will reverse that ruling — pointing to the decades long effort that it took to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide but was eventually overruled in 2022.

“Maybe the atmosphere is different on the Supreme Court,” said Republican Sen. Janice Bowling last month while debating in favor of the law. “We’re simply challenging a ruling.”

Democratic lawmakers and child advocates worry that the law may instill more fear into child rape victims that speaking out could potentially result in an execution, warning that many children are abused by family members and close friends. Others have alleged that predators could be incentivized to kill their victims in order to avoid a harsher punishment.

Execution law in the U.S. dictates that crimes must involve a victim’s death or treason against the government to be eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court ruled nearly 40 years ago that execution is too harsh a punishment for sexual assault, and justices made a similar decision in 2008 in a case involving the rape of a child.

Currently, all executions in Tennessee are on hold as state officials review changes to its lethal injection process. Gov. Lee issued the pause after a blistering 2022 report detailed multiple flaws in how Tennessee inmates were put to death.

No timeline has been provided on when those changes will be completed.

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