The Biggest Democracy’s Bigger Death Penalty

India has just sentenced four men to death in the infamous Delhi rape/murder case. India has apparently ended an eight-year moratorium on executions last year, greatly altering the global capital punishment map. At the same time, it also passed a new rape law, which would allow for execution in aggravated cases (not necessarily involving minors) even when no death results. Thus India’s new law goes even beyond what was recently forbidden by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Louisiana.

The problem with determining constitutional law in reference to a “international opinion” and practice is that it keeps changing, and not in a constant direction. In Roper v. Louisiana, the Court famously found the practices of other countries relevant to the constitutionality of the death penalty. A few years later, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court held the death penalty could not be constitutionally applied to child rapists (having given up execution for adult rape a while back).

In Roper, the Court found the countries that had executed juveniles in recent decades to be a motley mix of African and Islamic-law countries. But India is the world’s largest democracy, with Anglo-American legal traditions.

The more interesting point here is not about death penalty jurisprudence per se, but about the underlying assumptions about the reality and inevitability of human moral progress that underpins much of constitutional law’s “evolving consensus” discourse. Unlike in biology, norms and morales can evolve back.

[Of course, the death sentence is far from the end of the line for the Delhi rapists. There will be appeals, pardon requests, and the possibility of a last-minute stay, like the Indian Supreme Court gave this week to a father who beheaded his five daughters in an argument with his two wives.]

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