Death before dishonor

April 17, 2008

In the classic movie Birth of a Nation , made in 1915, a main white character named Flora is chased by a black character named Gus. It is obvious from the film that he wants, as in the terminology of the time, to ravish her. He chases her to the edge of a cliff (after all the director, D. W. Griffith, is famous for creating the ‘cliffhanger’ movie device) and jumps off to her tragic death, to avoid being raped and dishonored.

The term ‘death before dishonor’ has this origin:

Any misfortune that would make life unlivable, especially rape or loss of virginity. The phrase was formally a euphemism for rape.

This attested to the belief that a dishonoured woman was better off dead. It is still used, but ironically of late. That earlier view was expressed in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1781:

"The matrons and virgins of Rome were exposed to injuries more dreadful, in the apprehension of chastity, than death itself."

The concept continues today, perhaps unwittingly, as has been blogged :

…It lays bare details on the circumstances of the numbers of US female soldiers in Iraq who consciously chose to not drink water after 2 or 3pm, in order to not feel a need to urinate during the night. Apparently, the path to the latrines are unlit and this lays female soldiers open as potential victims to predatory males. And the males were their own platoon mates.

The confounding issue? The heat. It reached as high as 50C degrees. At that heat, frequent and plentiful hydration is necessary and going without water for extended periods of time can be lethal. Yet still, despite knowing this, many female soldiers consciously chose to avoid water and liquids so as to avoid the risk of rape. And many of them paid for this choice with their death, expiring in the middle of the night from dehydration.

Quote: "It is true rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent. "

SCOTUS will have to decide whether a Louisiana law passed in 1995 allowing for the executions of child rapists (children under 12 years old) is legal. The Louisiana State Supreme Court voted 6 – 1 to uphold the law.

SCOTUS apparently has left a loophole in the law for allowing child rapist executions:
In 1977, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed for the rape of an adult woman. The justices said the penalty would be disproportionate to the crime and was therefore forbidden as mcruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. But they left open the question of whether child rapists might be sentenced to death.

Part of the reasoning given by Louisiana to justify a death sentence includes, "Besides severe emotional trauma, Louisiana prosecutors said the attack caused internal injuries and bleeding to the child, requiring extensive surgery."

What interested me most in this case was this quote:

"A lot of people think there should not be the death penalty [in this case] because the child survives," said Kate Bartholomew, a sex crimes prosecutor in New Orleans. "In my opinion the rape of a child is more heinous and more hideous than a homicide."

Death before dishonor is back, sounds like to me. With or without the Southern racial element, who knows?

As is the case with the death penalty in the U.S., it can be quite arbitrary in being meted out and of course the threshold of punishment varies from state to state:

Georgia’s law allows the death penalty for those who rape children less than 10 years old.

Montana, Oklahoma and South Carolina — require multiple convictions.

The Texas Legislature approved a bill allowing the death penalty for those convicted of multiple rapes of children under 14.

In Texas, if you have a mandatory death sentence for a second offense, it would be 25 years before anyone could be executed. They would have to be found guilty for the first time once the law is in effect, and then serve the mandatory 25 years, be released, be found guilty again and then be executed.

No one in the United States has been executed for rape since 1964. Other state and federal crimes theoretically eligible for execution include treason, aggravated kidnapping, drug trafficking, aircraft hijacking and espionage.

I can’t see how you could get away from the history in the South of sentencing rapists to death .

…cites Department of Justice statistics showing that all 14 rapists executed by Louisiana in the past 75 years were African-American. Nationwide from 1930 to 1964, nearly 90 percent of executed rapists were black.

…executions in the United States last year , and have fell to a 13-year low of 42 been temporarily halted since the Supreme Court agreed in late September to decide the lethal injection case.

Interesting then with this trend, that the is use of death penalty being expanded, typically though in the South. Is this due to a climate of fear as regards the safety of children ? Hopefully those states will take care that there won’t be innocent people convicted and executed because of this.



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