US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Wednesday that capital punishment was meant only for murder. Other crimes, even child rape, could not be treated on the same footing, it held.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that "evolving standards of decency" in the United States forbid capital punishment for any crime other than murder.
Patrick Kennedy, who has been on Louisiana's death row since 2003, thus escapes the lethal injection.
He had been convicted of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter in her bed. The attack caused internal injuries and bleeding to the child, requiring extensive surgery, as well as severe emotional trauma, Louisiana prosecutors said.
But the Supreme Court justices ruled that the man's execution would be unconstitutional.
Patrick Kennedy, 43, would have been the first convicted rapist in 44 years to be executed in a case in which the victim was not killed.
After refusing to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the state's taking the death penalty off the table, Kennedy was convicted of aggravated rape in 2003; a jury then unanimously decided that he ought to be sentenced to death. The jury had this option because, in 1995, the Louisiana Legislature modified its rape laws so that aggravated rape of a child younger than 12 is punishable by "death or life imprisonment ... without parole." It is one of five states that allow juries to sentence convicted rapists to death.
Louisiana's statute conflicts directly with the Supreme Court's 30-year-old holding in Coker v. Georgia that "a sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape," it has been argued.
In 1976 and a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court banned capital punishment for rape -- and, by implication, any other crime except murder. But 19 years later, Louisiana passed a law allowing execution for the sexual violation of a child under 12. State lawmakers argued that the earlier high court cases pertained only to "adult women."
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, cautioned against arbitrary and capricious application of the law while handing down penalties and said it was better to stick to the rule reserving the capital punishment to crimes that take the life of the victim.