Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama said Wednesday they disagree with the Supreme Court's decision to outlaw the executions of people who rape children.
McCain called the ruling an "assault" on legal system. Obama said it is wrong to flatly prohibit the death penalty in such cases if states want to apply it.
The court's 5-4 decision struck down a Louisiana law that allows capital punishment for people convicted of raping children under 12, saying it violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling spares the only people in the U.S. under sentence of death for that crime — two Louisiana men convicted of raping girls 5 and 8. It also invalidates laws on the books in five other states that allowed executions for child rape that does not result in the death of the victim.
"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," Obama said at a news conference. "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution."
McCain said the "ruling is an assault on law enforcement's efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime."
There has not been an execution in the U.S. in 44 years that didn't involve the death of the victim. Forty-four states prohibit the death penalty for any kind of rape, and at least four states besides Louisiana permit it for child rape — Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. There's disagreement over the status of a Georgia law permitting execution for child rape, although Justice Kennedy said in his ruling that it was still in effect.
Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, said that had the court "said we want to constrain the abilities of states to do this to make sure that it's done in a careful and appropriate way, that would have been one thing. But it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision."
Obama has two daughters, ages 7 and 9.
He has long supported the death penalty while criticizing the way it is sometimes applied.
As an Illinois legislator, he helped rewrite the state's death penalty system to guard against innocent people being sentenced to die. The new safeguards included requiring police to videotape interrogations and giving the state Supreme Court more power to overturn unjust decisions.
He also opposed legislation making it easier to impose the death penalty for murders committed as part of gang activity. Obama argued the language was too vague and could be abused by authorities.
'Beyond the pale'
But Obama has never rejected the death penalty entirely. He supported death sentences for killing volunteers in community policing programs and for particularly cruel murders of elderly people.
"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment," he wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope."
In 1988, a question about rape and capital punishment tripped up Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
Dukakis was asked during a nationally televised debate with Republican George H. W. Bush whether he'd still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
His unemotional, dispassionate answer was ridiculed, and gave Republicans more material to paint him as an emotionless liberal.
At the news conference Wednesday, Obama answered questions on a number of topics, including a compromise eavesdropping bill the Senate was preparing to consider. He said he supports the bill, which would establish new rules to govern when the National Security Agency, CIA, FBI or others can tap American phone and computer lines.
The bill also effectively gives legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on calls and e-mails for years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, without the approval of a special, secret court.
Obama, who opposed an earlier version of the bill, said he supports the compromise partly because it would prohibit presidents from superseding surveillance rules in the future.