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Death penalty for child rapists approved in GOP state

Gov. Bill Lee makes remarks at a ceremony presenting Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Shields with The Soldier's Medal, July 10, in Brownsville. Shields, a member of the Tennessee National Guard's 1175th Transportation Company, acted heroically back in October 2018 when he stopped, disarmed and restrained a shooter after shots were fired in a parking lot following a high school football game. (Staff Sgt. Timothy Cordeiro/Tennessee National Guard)
May 18, 2024

Governor Bill Lee (R-Tenn.) signed a bill into law last week that authorizes the state to punish individuals convicted of child rape with the death penalty and other forms of capital punishment.

According to The Associated Press, the Tennessee governor quietly signed the legislation last week without releasing a public statement.

The legislation, which is currently scheduled to take effect in July, grants the state authority to pursue the use of capital punishment against individuals convicted of aggravated rape of a child. The capital punishment authorization includes the death penalty, imprisonment for life, and imprisonment for life without possible parole.

The Associated Press reported that Tennessee’s previous law that allowed convicted child rapists to be punished with the death penalty was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. At the time, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment in child sexual battery cases was unconstitutional, according to The Post Millennial.

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The Associated Press reported that supporters of the state’s new legislation have expressed optimism that the Supreme Court may reverse its previous ruling if the law is challenged in court. State lawmakers have pointed to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade as evidence that the court could reconsider the capital punishment ruling.

“Maybe the atmosphere is different on the Supreme Court,” Republican State Senator Janice Bowling said in April. “We’re simply challenging a ruling.”

On Tuesday, Lee explained that he did not sign the legislation last week because he wanted the bill to be “tested” in court but because crimes committed against children are “some of the most heinous that there are.”

According to The Associated Press, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) signed a similar law last year to authorize the death penalty for child rapists. The Republican-led Idaho House of Representatives also approved a similar bill; however, the bill has not been approved by the Idaho Senate.

The Associated Press reported that all executions in Tennessee were previously put on hold by Lee until state officials finalize changes to Tennessee’s lethal injection process. The pause was initiated by the Republican governor after a 2022 report highlighted flaws in the lethal injection process. A timeline for the finalization of the changes has not yet been announced.