Punishment for crimes that are deemed cruel and unusual is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment is often invoked when discussing the legal merits of the death penalty. The use of the death penalty is considered by some to be the most obvious and heinous example of cruel and unusual punishment. Those opposed to capital punishment do not believe that the government should be vested with the power to put any of its citizens to death.
Opponents also maintain that the practice is racially biased, overtly costly, and does not achieve the intended outcome. Proponents believe it to be neither cruel nor unusual, on the contrary, they think it just and fair. The purpose of this study is to discuss the legal and moral issues that literally are of life and death importance and to demonstrate the Supreme Court’s repeated decisions that allow capital punishment is not only just be necessary to maintain justice and a free society.
Historically speaking, the rationale for punishing criminals has been to avenge the crime, to protect society by imprisoning the criminal, to deter that person and other potential offenders from the commission of crimes, and to obtain reparations from the offender Throughout the history of civilization, this ratio has not changed substantially. The four fundamental reasons society punishes can be classified into two areas. One is to obtain desired consequences which include protecting society, seeking compensation, and deterrence. The other, retribution, or vengeance, involves punishment for a wrong perpetrated on society. (Wolfgang, 1998).
Cruel and Unusual, Not
By definition, capital punishment is not unusual, legally speaking, unless one considers and acknowledges the racial bias that exists in the justice system. Whether or not it is cruel is not definable by law. It can only be defined by the collective social consciousness of a culture.
The legal interpretation of ‘cruel and unusual’ is somewhat open to debate but in general, the term ‘cruel’ refers to brutal punishments that cause excessive pain. Most legal experts agree that punishments including bodily dismemberment or torture are undoubtedly classified as cruel. Again, terminologies are open to interpretation as evidenced by the current debate at the highest level of government involving the definition of torture. The term ‘unusual’ is commonly understood to define the equitable application of punishment for a particular offense. For example, if ten people were cited for speeding and nine of them were fined $100 but one was fined $1000, this penalty would be considered ‘unusual.’ Taken together, both ‘cruel’ and ‘unusual’ indicate that the punishment should be exacted in proportion to the offense committed.
A life term in prison is an acceptable form of punishment but if it were imposed for jaywalking, this would be an unacceptable sentence because it would be considered excessive given the severity of the offense. Excessive is also open to wide interpretation in both the public and legal realm. Some would argue, for example, that imprisonment of any amount of time for ‘crimes’ such as gambling, prostitution, and the possession of drugs should be interpreted as excessive, therefore ‘unusual.’
The Supreme Court has on several occasions dealt with judging the merits of the death penalty and whether or not it is interpreted by the Constitution as punishment which is cruel and unusual.
The Court has always ruled the terminology of the Eighth Amendment does not exclude the implementation of death as punishment. (Mott, 2004).
Law of the Land
The Constitution is a malleable document, however. The interpretation of the Eighth Amendment has evolved somewhat throughout the years and the Court could possibly reverse this point of view sometime in the future as a result of changing societal values.
For example, the whipping of offenders was commonplace until the late Eighteenth Century. This practice came to be considered inappropriate because society’s opinion changed to include it as a ‘cruel’ punishment. With respect to capital punishment, though, “the Court has maintained that there remains broad public support for the death penalty as a remedy for the most serious of crimes” (Mott, 2004).
Justice is Served
Opponents of the death penalty argue that the penalty is unjust but proponents disagree with this position because they believe what is truly unjust is the deliberate act of taking another life, murder. Further, an injustice society should not condone is allowing murderers to keep their lives after imposing the death sentence themselves on another and by that act, also sentencing the victim’s family to a life sentence of anguish. If someone steals a car, for example, and was allowed to keep and drive it around town without fear of retribution, no one would think that fair. It is neither fair to allow anyone that steals a life to keep their own. By allowing people who have been convicted of acting as self-appointed executioners to keep their own life devalues human life on the whole.
Although the U.S. court system is at least among the most equitable in the world, no system of justice can expect to provide perfect results 100 percent of the time. Mistakes are inherent within all systems that rely on the human element for proof and for judgment. The justice system correctly demands that a higher standard be imposed for determinations of guilt in death penalty cases. With the extraordinary due process that is applied in all death penalty cases, the risk of making a mistake is minute. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there has been no credible evidence provided that confirms any innocent persons have been executed. The more than 100 ‘innocent’ death row inmates that were ‘exonerated’ are a sham. The actual figure of innocent death row inmates is nearer 40 which should be considered in context with the 7,000-plus death–row inmates added to the roles since 1973. Mistakes within the system, though few and unavoidable, should not serve as justification to eradicate the death penalty. We should never disregard the dangers of permitting murderers to kill again (Stewart, 2006).
Don’t allow them to kill again
According to death penalty proponents, sending a murderer away to enjoy three meals a day and a roof over their heads for life simply doesn’t fully address the issue. Death penalty laws have been known to change and probably will again. In addition, people tend to forget the past and parole boards constantly evolve their personnel so there is always a chance, no matter how small, that the murderer will strike again if he is allowed to remain alive. A life sentence imprisonment tends to depreciate with the passage of time as these examples illustrate. In 1962, James Moore raped and strangled 14-year-old Pamela Moss in New York State. Her parents were opposed to the death penalty and asked that he be given life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Moore has been eligible for parole every two years since 1982 because of a change in sentencing laws. In 1966, Kenneth McDuff was convicted in the fatal shooting of two boys in the face and the brutal rape and strangulation of their 16-year-old female friend. A Texas jury sentenced McDuff to die in the electric chair but in 1972 this was commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In 1989, he was released only to commit at least six more murders which included a pregnant mother of two. He was finally executed in 1998 (Lowe, 2006).
According to those in favor of the death penalty, opponents defy reasonable logic by arguing that taking a murderer’s life devalues human life. Evidently, they have never had their car stolen and don’t understand the example or they believe that the murderer’s life is more valuable than the victim’s. Taking away criminals’ freedom is the only way of showing how much we value freedom.
Lowe, Wesley. (2006). “Capital Punishment vs. Life Without Parole.” ProDeath Penalty. Web.
Mott. Jonathan. (2000). “Is the Death Penalty Constitutional?” This Nation. Web.
Stewart, Steven D. (2006). “A Message from the Prosecuting Attorney.” The Death Penalty. Clark County, IN: Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney.
Wolfgang, M.E. (1998). “We Do Not Deserve to Kill.” Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 44, pp. 19-32.