As Jan Jobroe Russell stated, “If justice were a computer, the death penalty is like a virus running wild and loose through the system” (seattlepi.com). Cruel and unusual punishments include torture, intentionally degrading punishment, or punishment that is too severe for the crime committed (dictionary.com). Although, the most well-known cruel and unusual punishment is the death penalty. On December 16, 1689, England passed The English Bill of Rights.
Along with several rights and liberties declared in this document, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment resides. On September 17, 1787, the United States Constitution was passed. Eventually, in response to states’ desires for greater protection of natural rights and liberties, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights contains the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The protection from these cruel and unusual punishments, as stated in the Eighth Amendment has gone through many alters in its establishment. The Eighth Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment was adopted because of the historic need to prevent abuse of power from the government regarding sentencing with the justice system.
In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the system of the death penalty currently in place was unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment (Furman v. Georgia). A moratorium of the death penalty was put into place in the U.
S. A total of 35 states changed the way they induced the death penalty to comply with this ruling. There are many opinions surrounding the death penalty, specifically the argument of whether it is unconstitutional or not. Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the United States Supreme Court and a leading critic of the death penalty, wrote, “As I and other justices have previously pointed out, individuals who are executed are not the ‘worst of the worst’ but, rather, are individuals chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race” (nytimes.com). He is pointing out that the death penalty is given inconsistently or “at random.
” It is not the death penalty itself that was or is believed to be unconstitutional, it is the random way the justice system applies it. One landmark case, Gregg v. Georgia began with an armed robbery and murder convicted by Troy Gregg. Gregg’s case brings challenge to the sentencing of cruel and unusual punishments as violating the Eighth Amendment. The case involves aggravating circumstances along with two trials determining guilt and sentencing.
The Supreme Court sentenced Gregg to death for the crimes committed and jury findings of “aggravating circumstances.” He asked the Court to rule the death penalty unconstitutional, going further than the Furman case. The Court refused and instead found Georgia’s system for applying the death penalty as “judicious.” The Court ruled, “The imposition of the death penalty for the crime of murder has a long history of acceptance both in the United States and in England.
At the time the Eighth Amendment was ratified, capital punishment was a common sanction in every State.” Most importantly, “Considerations of federalism, as well as respect for the ability of a legislature to evaluate… the moral consensus concerning the death penalty and its social utility as a sanction, require us to conclude, in the absence of more convincing evidence, that the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and thus is not unconstitutionally severe” (billofrightsinstitute.org, oyez.org). Contemporary court cases continue to challenge the sentencing of cruel and unusual punishment as stating it unconstitutional. In Moore v. Texas, Bobby James Moore was convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to death; both were affirmed on appeal. A federal court granted habeas corpusrelief resulting in a new hearing in 2001.
Moore was both sentenced to death and affirmed on appeal, again. He sought state habeas corpus, arguing the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia should also apply to his case. He argued this because he stated he was intellectually disabled and should be exempt from execution. He was granted habeas relief based on this argument involving the Atkins case. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas (CCA) reversed and held that he failed to establish evidence that he was intellectually disabled. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
, said that the factors the CCA applied violated the Eighth Amendment. However, he also said that Moore’s IQ score showed he was not mentally disabled. He argued that the majority opinion did not give states enough guidance to enforce the Eighth Amendment ban on executing the mentally disabled properly. In Hall v. Florida, Freddie Lee Hall was sentenced to death for murder. He sought habeas corpus along with a stay of execution in state court, and was denied.
He then sought habeas corpus in federal court and was also denied. Hall later appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit which reversed and remanded the case for a hearing because of the potential effect of his absence during his court trial. He was denied habeas corpus, yet again, from the district court and ruled his absence from court was harmless.
Hall then sought habeas corpus from the Supreme Court of Florida based on the decision in Hitchcock v. Dugger. The Court denied and held there were no errors in sentencing. He was signed his second death warrant when he filed a motion to vacate the sentence in which the court denied. After going through the trial court and Supreme Court of Florida again, the case was vacated and remanded for new sentencing. The trial court ruled that his mental retardation was a factor with “unquantifiable weight.” He was again sentenced to death and the Supreme Court of Florida affirmed. Later in 2002, the Supreme Court decided the execution of one with mental retardation was considered cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Eighth Amendment.
Hall filed a motion to proclaim that certain sections of the Florida death penalty statute as unconstitutional. The trial court determined Hall was not eligible to make such a claim because an IQ below 70 could not be met(oyez.org). Overall, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause from the Eighth Amendment has gone through many alters in its establishment. This amendment defends individuals from sentences too severe for the crime committed. The death penalty is very controversial among the public, as well as government officials. Court cases will continue to challenge the justice of sentencing regarding cruel and unusual punishments.