Child Rape, Moral Outrage, and the Death Penalty

Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy, Vol. 103, p. 17, 2008

12 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2008 Last revised: 18 Mar 2009

See all articles by Susan A. Bandes

Susan A. Bandes

DePaul University - College of Law

Date Written: August 7, 2008


In *Engaging Capital Emotions,* Douglas Berman and Stephanos Bibas argue that emotion is central to understanding and evaluating the death penalty, and that the emotional case for the death penalty for child rape may be even stronger than for adult murder. Both the Berman and Bibas article and the subsequent Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana (striking down the death penalty for child rape) raise difficult questions about how to measure the heinousness of crimes other than murder, and about the role the pain suffered by victims and victims' families should play in this inquiry.

In this Reply, I agree with the authors on the importance of confronting emotion's role in capital punishment, for reasons I discuss in Part A. However, I disagree with their claim that the moral outrage evoked by child rape supports making it a capital crime. Part B explores the difficulties of using the existence of moral outrage as a measure of appropriate punishment. Part C argues that the penal system should not merely reflect moral outrage, but channel and educate it. It suggests that the availability of the death penalty may create an anchoring effect, communicating the message that the death penalty is the proper way to express moral outrage and to honor the worth of murder victims. It explores the consequences of this message. Section II focuses on the role of emotion in deciding whether child rape should be a capital crime. Part A considers the problematic role of victim harm in determining whether the death penalty is appropriate. It explores the question, raised in Kennedy v Louisiana, of whether the effect of a capital trial on child rape victims ought to be part of the calculus. Part B argues that there are three particular problems with allowing juries to sentence child rapists to death: the deleterious effect of anger and empathy, the problem of generic prejudice, and the issue of race.

Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, child rape, emotion, moral outrage

Suggested Citation

Bandes, Susan A., Child Rape, Moral Outrage, and the Death Penalty (August 7, 2008). Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy, Vol. 103, p. 17, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Susan A. Bandes (Contact Author)

DePaul University - College of Law ( email )

25 E. Jackson Blvd.
Chicago, IL Cook County 60604-2287
United States
(312) 362-8701 (Phone)


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