Tennessee Lawmakers Move Forward with Death Penalty Option for Child Rapists

Tennessee Lawmakers Move Forward with Death Penalty Option for Child Rapists

After a contentious discussion during Tuesday’s Tennessee Senate Judiciary committee meeting, a bill that would allow the death sentence as retribution for child rape has advanced.

Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1834 (SB1834), which would apply the death penalty for “rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, or especially aggravated rape of a child.”

Republican senator Ken Yager introduced the bill to the committee, however two changes were submitted by committee members, and neither of them was approved.

Sen. London Lamar, a Democrat who was advocating for an amendment, said during the discussion that it would be “a lot of pressure” to put the victims through the death penalty for child rapists.

“It’s already a sensitive subject for a child to come forth to make it be known that they have been violated and knowing that the person they are accusing is going to die,” Lamar stated. 

“I would consider this friendly. It doesn’t disrupt the bill or anything. It’s just simply asking to give mental health counseling to the child throughout the process. Simple, shouldn’t be very controversial,” Lamar said in support of the proposal.

“The mental health of the child is damaged at the time of the rape, not during the trial. At the time of the horrendous act of being raped, usually by someone they may know, that’s where the problem occurs,” Yager said with emotions. 

Lamar continues by expressing her concern that this would discourage kids from wanting to speak up.

“That is a lot of pressure we are putting on children. In order for them to speak up about the violations they experienced, they know, in response, that somebody is going to die,” Lamar stated. 

Following extensive evidence from the District Attorney’s office, a number of attorneys, and child advocates, Lamar moved to send the measure to summer study so that additional investigation and careful evaluation of the material provided could occur.

Lamar continued to assert that approving the law would hurt the victims, but District Attorney General Stephen Crump shot back during the testimony.

“It is our position that the child victim would not be the one putting them to death. If anyone put them to death, it would be the rapist who asked for it,” Crump stated. 

The committee ultimately decided not to send the bill to summer study and then voted on the bill itself.

Sen. Kerry Roberts, a Republican, and Chairman Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga-District 10, made concluding remarks and clarified that voting against the bill would not imply support for the death sentence in rape cases, but rather that the member was against the bill as drafted.

Roberts maintained that he could not support the death sentence because too many of those instances relied on circumstantial evidence, even though he was all in favor of applying it as a punishment for those accusations.

With five votes in favor and four against, the law passed. Gardenhire, Lamar, Roberts, and Senator Sara Kyle (D-Memphis, District 30) were the only ones who voted against the bill.

The Senate Calendar Committee has now been tasked with overseeing the bill.

Tennessee is one of the 27 states that permits the death penalty; at the moment, non-homicide offenses are exempt. The death penalty is only available in seven other states for specific charges of child rape.