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Bill calling for death for child rape falters

Public-defender cost raised as concern by John Moritz | April 7, 2021 at 4:36 a.m.

A bill proposing to make the rape of a child punishable by death in Arkansas was voted down Tuesday in a House committee after concerns were raised about the cost.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2008 that the death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for the crime of raping a child.

Senate Bill 284, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, "is directly challenging that decision," the senator told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Garner said that new appointments of conservative justices to the high court in recent years present the opportunity to reverse the precedent.

If enacted and upheld, SB284 would allow prosecutors to charge someone with the offense of capital rape for having sex with someone under the age of 14 along with other aggravating circumstances, such as causing serious injury or engaging in sex trafficking.

The offense of capital rape would be punishable by death or life in prison without parole.

Garner said the proposed law would "be used in the most extreme circumstances," but opponents of the bill -- chiefly defense attorneys -- said it would also carry other costs.

Gregg Parrish, the state's public defender coordinator, said his office would be strained to handle the additional work of defending people accused of capital rape because most people cannot afford attorneys who handle death penalty cases.

Parrish estimated that based on records from the courts and the state Department of Human Services, more than 30 cases of capital rape as defined in the bill could be filed every year in Arkansas.

He said his office would need additional funding to handle that workload.

Also speaking against the bill was Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock defense attorney who often represents defendants in death penalty cases. Rosenzweig said charges of rape are more likely to result in wrongful convictions than other serious crimes, such as murder, that generally include more physical evidence.

"There are always mistaken and abusive prosecutions in this area," Rosenzweig said.

The committee declined to send SB284 to the House floor on a voice vote. The bill had passed in the Senate on a 27-1 vote last month.

Garner said later Tuesday that he would work with Parrish to amend the bill to narrow its application to "the most heinous crimes as far as physical injury goes."

Garner said he hoped to submit the bill again in the committee before the legislative session recesses later this month.

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