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Published on May 15, 2024
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee Signs Bill Authorizing Death Penalty for Aggravated Child Rape CasesSource: Ken Piorkowski, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has put his signature on a contentious piece of legislation that blazes a new and chilling trail in the state's criminal justice system. Beginning July 1, adults found guilty of aggravated rape of a child could find themselves facing the ultimate punishment—death. This bill, signed into law without much fanfare by Gov. Lee on May 9, has ignited a fiery debate across the Volunteer State.

According to WSMV, SB1834/HB1663, as introduced by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, "authorizes the death penalty as a punishment for rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, or especially aggravated rape of a child." This means that come July, perpetrators of such heinous acts against minors may very well end up on Tennessee's death row.

The ABC News report reveals that the bill's supporters are banking on the chance that a conservatively-leaning Supreme Court might reverse the standing ruling that deems capital punishment unconstitutional in child sexual battery cases. This echoes an approach similar to that which led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. "We’re simply challenging a ruling," Republican Sen. Janice Bowling stated during a debate last month.

Not everyone sees the law in the brave light shined by its proponents. Critics, including Democratic lawmakers and child advocates, have expressed deep concerns. They fear the law might backfire, silencing victims who will dread the thought of their testimony leading to an execution—especially since many are abused by family members or close friends. They argue that the new punishment could drive predators to kill their victims to avoid a harsher sentence. "Crimes against children are some of the most heinous that there are," Gov. Lee told reporters on Tuesday, as per Newsweek.

Current execution laws in Tennessee are under scrutiny. With all executions suspended while officials reassess the lethal injection process—a decision sparked by a blistering report last year revealing serious flaws—there's uncertainty about when or how the new law will be fully actionable.