Being one of the shortest amendments in the Constitution of the United States, from imposing a strict ban on excessive fines, and excessive bail, to prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments, executed by the Government of the States, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, not only plays a part in the Bill of Rights but serves to be a powerful segment in the legal sector.
Considering the fact that the concept brewed under this amendment has various perspectives, several debates upon morality, ethicality and practicality have taken place, which is why it deems it necessary to comprehend the definition of the aforementioned.
1. Definition of the Eighth Amendment
Noun– “An amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits the imposition of excessive fines, excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment.”
Origin– The amendment had been brought into existence as well as ratified on December 15, 1791.
2. Understanding the Eighth Amendment
To protect the American citizens who are categorized as the accused, from paying excessive amounts as bail compensation so as to restrict them from being freed from prison confinement for the sake of representing their case to having imposed upon such punishments that are cruel, vigorous, and rare, is the entire essence of the eighth amendment.
Being a crucial gain to the Bill of Rights, this amendment focuses solely on safeguarding citizens of America blamed for a crime from paying unbridled fines or being witnessed to vehement and ruthless punishments.
In any legal scripture, be it the provisions, sections, or the amendments of the United States Constitution, the clarity of the written text serves to be under question, making it vehemently susceptible to various debates and discussions considering the difference in the perspectives.
In the same pathway, the eighth amendment falls under the umbrella of ambiguity considering the fact that it expresses vague wordings which makes the United States Court free to interpret, analyse and pass judgment as per their discretion and perception. The aforesaid amendment puts forth the following:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
As an illustration to understand the concept of cruel and unusual punishments, the essentiality of Trop v. Dulles surfaces. In this case, the majority of the people were of the view that the death penalty was not a part of the constitutional limitations imposed on the punishments.
They added their contention by saying, “Whatever the arguments may be against capital punishment, the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.”
As this concept was running on one end, simultaneously, on the other, a group of civil rights activists and civil liberties organizations curated an extravagant campaign serving against the ideology of the death penalty altogether in the 1960s which was eventually followed by the court addressing the issues of the hour. However, the response achieved were inconsistent.
In 2002, pertaining to the same ongoing debate, the United States Supreme Court brought into existence a crucial rule that the sixth amendment comprising the right to trial by jury comprehends “the right to have a jury make factual determinations on which a sentencing increase is based.”
The aforesaid simply signifies the fact that if the judges of the court are given an assent to derive factual findings that term the circumstances as aggravating and non-negotiable with regards to letting it slide, keeping in mind the betterment of the society, which actually fall under the umbrella of the requisites required for imposition of a death sentence, then death penalty shall not be regarded as unconstitutional.
2.1 The History of the Eighth Amendment
Dating back to the 1600s, the concept of the Eighth Amendment was brought into play when the pioneer was a man named Titus Oates in England. The story of the aforesaid individual goes in a way where a group of people were awarded the death penalty, against whom Titus Oates committed the act of perjury.
Followed by the aforementioned, was the conviction of Titus for the crimes of perjury he executed which led him to a punishment of indefinite imprisonment.
Not only this, but the punishments grew even harsh when he was forced to spend two days, outside his jail cell, in the pillory which are the stocks each year, added to one day of whipping while he was tied to a moving cart.
This is precisely when the debate of drastic punishment versus minimal crime started surfacing.
A few years down the line, the English Bill of Rights was put into motion by the Parliament which placed a strict ban on the imposition of cruel, ruthless, and unusual punishment.
The reason behind the emergence of such an enaction was directly associated with the punishments that had been imposed on the said individual stated above, Titus Oates which was categorized as downright vicious, barbarous, wicked, and inhuman.
The English Bill of Rights served as a huge influence in the formation of the American Bill of Rights.
Taking proper inspiration from the former Bill of Rights, as a part of the 10 amendments, to ensure the United States government refrained from executing punishments which were barbaric and cruel in nature, was the entire essence of the eighth amendment.
Lobbied by George Mason and Patrick Henry followed by having it proposed before Congress by James Madison, the eighth amendment was added to the American Bill of Rights officially on December 15, 1791.
2.2 Cruel and Unusual Punishments Under the Eighth Amendment
A part of the eighth amendment which revolves around the concept of cruel and unusual punishments imposes a strict ban on the federal as well as the state governments for inflicting punishments of certain kind and intensity, irrespective of the crime committed by the accused.
Though the wordings in the amendment serve to be unclear and vague pertaining to having to pinpoint barbaric punishments, from castration, burning live, drawing and quartering, public dissection, to any punishment curated to cause a lingering death or serve to be beyond the concept of public decency, are the actions that are classified under the umbrella of cruel and unusual which has been established by the means of various precedents, judgments and case laws throughout the history of the United States judiciary.
3. The Death Penalty
The execution of a human being, convicted of a certain crime, as well as one which has been assented by the state as a punishment, is known as Death Penalty.
A consequence that is known as capital punishment can be awarded by both the federal as well as state governments but only for crimes which are considered capital offences.
To dive deeper into understanding the concept, throwing light on the perspective the Supreme Court of the United States holds, deems it essential.
In numerous instances, the idea that rather than having perceived the death penalty serving to be violative of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, it is essential to fathom that the Eighth Amendment puts forth guidelines with regard to certain procedural arenas that can be adhered by the jury when it comes to the usage of such a punishment and the way it must be carried out.
The Eighth Amendment has been deemed applicable to the state as well as the federal administrative branch because of the Due Process Clause mentioned in the fourteenth amendment.
Having to take into account the constantly changing standards of decency in determining whether a particular punishment falls under the category of cruel or unusual, is what the eighth amendment urges the court to follow.
From looking for objective criteria that put forth a change in the standards of the community to having analysed independently the statutes and provisions pertaining to its rationality, it is these guidelines of decency that the courts are to consider.
3.1 Case Laws on the Death Penalty
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)– In this case, the Court down rightly refused to elaborate on the case of Furman.
The Court put forth that the death penalty was not technically unconstitutional as it could be used to serve the social goals of retribution and deterrence.
In specific, the Court was of the view to uphold Georgia’s new capital sentencing procedures, with the explanation that the Georgia guidelines drastically alleviated the ongoing issues of arbitrary usage as witnessed in the earlier statutes and provisions.
3.1.1 Proportionality Requirement
Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)– The aforementioned case revolved around the United States Supreme Court holding to the idea that a death penalty must be strictly proportional to the offence committed, as otherwise, the punishment serves to be absolutely violative of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on the concept of cruel and unusual punishment.
To execute the proportionality analysis as mentioned above, the Supreme Court focuses on the three factors stated below:
- To take into account the crime’s intensity, gravity, and the stringency of the penalty.
- To take into account how the particular court in charge of such a consequence, punishes its other criminals.
- To take into account how courts of different jurisdictions deal with and punish the same crime.
Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)– Twenty-one years down the line, in the aforesaid case, the Supreme Court added on its ruling in the case of Coker, where it was established that the accessibility of using the death penalty in cases of child rape where the victim lives, has been deemed as void.
As only six states in the country were allowed for conducting an execution as a punishment for child rape, the Supreme Court, post analysing the view of the same on a national basis, made the act of pursuing the death penalty in such cases as lop-sided and irrational.
3.1.2 The Principle of Individualized Sentencing
Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002)- It is essential to understand that when imposing the punishment of a death penalty, the jury must be made aware of the situation and circumstances of the convict as well as the process of individualized sentencing must be carried out by the court.
In the aforesaid case, the United States Supreme Court held the concept of ” a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury, to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty”, as downright unauthorized and unlawful.
3.1.3 Classes of Persons Ineligible for the Death Penalty
Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)- The Supreme Court, in the aforesaid case, came to a consensus that applying the concept of the death penalty on the convict who is intellectually challenged or developmentally disabled, serves as violative of the ban imposed by the eighth amendment on executing cruel and unusual punishment.
The explanation lies on the lines that such criminals’ cognitive disability reduces the intensity of the offence committed hence to award a death penalty to such convicts deems it absolutely disproportionate and irrational.
Bobby v. Bies, 556 U.S. 825 (2009)– On the other hand, the United States Supreme Court in the aforementioned case, held that the states are authorized to execute hearings in order to reassess the mental status of the convicts awarded the death penalty who was placed under the category of being developmentally disabled before the Court passed a verdict on the case of Atkins because, before Atkins, the states had a very little authority to vigorously scrutinize the claims made on the concept of disability.
Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)- In this case, the Supreme Court placed a prohibition on the act of awarding the death penalty to all the juveniles categorized as convicts.
The majority were of the opinion that the teenager involved in the case lacked maturity and responsibility, which made the teen susceptible to unavoidable negative influences, as well as focused on the teenager’s incomplete character growth. Hence, the Court came to a verdict that “juvenile offenders assume diminished culpability for their crimes”.
Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. (2014),– In this said case, the Court was of the opinion that a “Brightline IQ” threshold may not serve as a deciding factor as to whether an individual is intellectually or developmentally handicapped in order to be awarded the punishment of a death penalty.
3.2 States that Award Death Penalty
The following is a list of states that are authorized to award death penalties to individuals categorized as convicts for crimes that are considered capital offences only:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
4. The Renowned Case Law of Furman v. Georgia
A turning point as it was, instead of marking the punishment of the death penalty as violative and unconstitutional, only certain constitutional discrepancies were noted, which changed the entire course of action of the said consequence, thanks to the Supreme Court’s verdict in the case of Furman v. Georgia, 1972.
Holding only a slight effect in pinpointing the difference between the action of sentencing to death and actual execution, timing it in the long run, had the most vehement result of constitutionalizing capital penalty law, complemented with the inculcation of the judicial courts in a thorough analysis of capital sentences.
Federal law responsible for regulating capital punishment, that is death penalty was upfront, clear, and straightforward prior to the year of the watershed moment in the capital punishment arena.
Not only was awarded the death sentence downright legitimate but also held very little scope for going through any constitutional review pertaining to the same.
The case of Furman and the five cases of 1976 followed the same path as the former case verdict, though very categorically re-assented the validity and constitutionality of the death penalty, that is capital punishment but also broke open wide the gates for a vigorous constitutional review.
Post the year of the verdict that is 1976, the court has come across a bunch full of cases where their decision depended on the application as well as reaching a consensus on the constantly conflicting principles pertaining to the aspect of capital punishment which was “sentencing discretion shall be restricted through the application of targeted guidelines that narrow and define the category of death awarded defendants and thereby prevent the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, but that jury discretion must also be preserved in order to weigh the mitigating circumstances of individual defendants who fall within the death-eligible class”.
5. The Question of Whether the Death Penalty is Discriminatory in Nature?
Serving as one of the most highlighting and main principles of objections is the fact that the procedure of awarding the death penalty does not involve fair administration, which was especially witnessed in the case of Furman, opined by Justice Douglas.
Following the contention was the explanation that the authorization of suspending capital punishment, which lies blindly in the hands of the juries has been seen going in an untoward direction that is of racial discrimination.
Hence, as it defies the entire concept of being fair, rational, and unbiased, the concept of discrimination is an element that cannot merge with the idea of equal protection of the laws which goes against the ban imposed by the eighth amendment that is of “cruel and unusual” punishments.
Although the aforementioned argument has not seen the light of day, the Supreme Court of the United States has made it a point to take into account the possibility of witnessing evident racial discrimination with regard to awarding capital punishment, however deriving proof to support the aforesaid contention has been one uphill task.
As a method to extend protection to the convicts awarded the death penalty from any kind of bias witnessed by the juries, the Supreme Court of the United States put forth that a defendant given the capital punishment, who serves as an accused in an interracial crime has the right to make the prospective jurors aware of the racial status of the victim and questioned on the issue of racial bias witnessed.
In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court was of the view that even a strong statistical depiction of racial disparity in cases where the death penalty is awarded, serves to be insufficient to claim a violation under the Eighth Amendment of the American Constitution.
The Court upheld, “Statistics alone do not establish racial discrimination in any particular case, the Court concluded, but at the most show only a likelihood that a particular factor entered into some decisions.”
6. The Suspension of the Death Penalty
The issue pertaining to the arbitrariness of the death penalty had been on the plate for a long time, however, it was majorly highlighted in the case of Furman v. Georgia, 1972.
Furman, not only contended that cases pertaining to capital punishments always gave an arbitrary and vague outcome but also challenged the Eighth Amendment entirely.
Post the Furman case verdict, the Supreme Court highlighted a few points which suggested that punishment shall be categorized as “cruel and unusual” if:
- It was too harsh, vigorous, and exaggerated as compared to the crime committed.
- It was completely arbitrary in nature
- It clashed with society’s created sense of justice
- It was not more effective than a less severe penalty.
Having 9 justices set to put forth their thoughts, as the votes of opinion fell in the comparison of 5 to 4, it was decided by the Supreme Court the death penalty statute curated by the state of Georgia which authorized complete ruling power to the juries, violated the entire concept of the eighth amendment.
The explanation to the aforesaid was that the outcome of such monopolistic authority could be arbitrary in nature and would be unconstitutional to the idea of not having cruel and unusual punishment suspended on the convicts.
As the aforementioned served to be the Court’s contention, it was followed by rendering 40 death penalty statutes as void and releasing around 629 convicts awarded with the death penalty from the punishment as the statutes processing such a consequence were no longer in force.
6.1 The Reinstatement of the Death Penalty
Having only two of the Justices, that is Justice Brennan and Justice Marshal holding the opinion that the concept of capital punishment was downright unconstitutional, the judgment that was overall witnessed in the case of Furman was that there were few specific death penalty statutes which were violative, not the award.
Upholding this view, the Supreme Court allowed the States to rewrite the context of statutes pertaining to capital punishment in order to take down the issues stated in the case of Furman from its root.
From lawyers engaged in the aspect regulating death penalty punishments, curating new provisions in order to eliminate the arbitrariness in capital sentencing to the State of Florida re-capturing the essence of the death penalty statute, only five months down the line post the verdict of Furman, that served as a torchbearer for all the other following states, 34 of them to be specific that enacted the newly birthed capital punishment guidelines, the case of Furman, became a pivotal point in the journey of the development of the capital punishment.
In order to down rightly demolish the biased perspectives of the jury that they use as per their discretion, few states struck down the authority of the jury to award the death penalty altogether by ensuring that capital punishment is granted in cases of capital crimes only.
Woodson v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 280 (1976))- In the aforementioned case, though, the Supreme Court of the United States, held the practice of awarding the death penalty only in cases where capital offences are committed, as unconstitutional and unlawful.
Neither complete authority could be bestowed upon the jury to make the decision pertaining to granting the death penalty, nor could it be taken away from them altogether, this is precisely why other states came up with a remedy that revolved around limiting the jury’s discretion in cases of awarding capital punishment.
The restriction was not only imposed in a way of putting ahead sentencing guidelines and rules for the judge and the jury to decide whether a death penalty is suitable for the said offence but also brought to existence the aggravating and mitigating factors that help in adjudging a capital sentencing.
Witnessed in the cases of Gregg v. Georgia (428 U.S. 153), Jurek v. Texas (428 U.S. 262), and Proffitt v. Florida (428 U.S. 242), were the statutes that put forth guidelines for jury discretion in regard to awarding death penalty which in a nutshell is referred as the Gregg decision.
The aforesaid landmark verdict not only expressed that the new capital punishment statutes in Florida, Georgia and Texas are constitutional and lawful but also brought back the punishment of the death penalty in the aforesaid states. Complementing this, was another fact, that was upheld by the Supreme Court which was that the concept of the death penalty or capital punishment was thoroughly constitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The concept of the death penalty also known as capital punishment had been in the debates for a long time only to understand its constitutionality and legality. Be it to understand the core essence of the Eighth Amendment or the concept of the death penalty in a nutshell, with various judgements, the answer to the legality of the aforementioned has been brought to existence.
From issues pertaining to unguided jury discretion to understanding whether the death penalty is lawful, the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights has made it very evident, that capital punishment is constitutional in the United States of America.