The Eighth Amendment
The one to ten amendments comprising the United States Constitution are part of the Bill of Rights. The legislations act as provisionary measures for the freedom of the people in exercising their privileges while limiting the power of the government. These amendments, first deduced by James Madison (termed as the father of the U.S. Constitution) are inclined towards the protection of inherent rights and privileges of freedom and property of the American people. Historically, the amendments were created for the sole purpose of protecting the white people, thus excluding other races such as the American Indians and the African American people. However, with the passage of time and civil rights activism, the amendments were applied as law to all states and guarantee freedom to all citizens of the country. One of the most influential amendments in the United States Constitution is the Eighth Amendment. The legislation has been the basis for most laws involving the punishment of criminals and fundamentally addressing the controversial death penalty.
1. The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution is a vital part of the Bill of Rights. Adopted in 1791, in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, the amendment attributes its elements to the English Bill of Rights created in 1689. The provision, Cruel and Unusual Punishments, is the most notable clause in the Eighth Amendment. The amendment originated from the case of Titus Oates in the 17th century. During the reign of King James II, Titus Oates was lawfully punished for several acts of perjury in which many people were wrongly executed due to his erroneous indictments. His sentences included a day of beating while being tied to a moving handcart and two days of pillory annually. Eventually, Oates’ case became a reason for the study of the Eighth Amendment by the United States Supreme Court. Despite the fact that Oates was not awarded the death penalty, the English Parliament declared that the consecutive punishments of Oates’ sentence were extreme and unparalleled. In 1869, the English Parliament, with the consent of King William III and Queen Mary II, declared the cruel and unusual punishments bill as law. The declaration of this historical law set the precedent for the adoption of the Eighth Amendment in the United States (Parrish, 57).
2. The Eighth Amendment (in the context of cruel and unusual punishment), according to the United States Supreme Court, prohibits some forms of punishment and other punishments deemed extreme when matched up to the crime committed or the intention of the perpetrator. Before 1962, the Supreme Court interpreted the amendment as applicable to the federal government only. However, much jurisprudence on the Robinson v. California in 1962 changed the application of the legislation to not only cover the federal government but also all the state governments. The main reason attributed to the legal change was that the imposing of cruel and unusual punishment violated the Fourth Amendment, which advocated for the rights of persons to be protected from irrational seizures and searches in their personal effects (Parrish, 167). Furthermore, with the upcoming legal cases encompassing parts of the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States has further interpreted the legislation setting more judicial precedents for other cases. For instance, the Supreme Court further interpreted dissection, disembowelment and human burning to be acts under cruel and unusual punishment. Regarding the case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court added execution of the mentally disabled as extreme and unusual. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court further classified the execution of juveniles to be under the cruel and unusual punishments clause. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has also interpreted the cruel and unusual punishments clause as not subjective to torture alone. In Trop v. Dullies, the Supreme Court stated that relieving the citizenship of a citizen (from naturalization) is primitive than torture since it destroys the status of the individual in the society (Parrish, 223). The Supreme Court has also classified that sentences based on acts such as narcotic addiction violate the Eighth Amendment since they are deemed as illnesses. Furthermore, the Supreme Court interpreted the Eighth Amendment by contrasting the period of incarceration against the crime committed and thus substantiated that lopsided sentences were violations of the amendment. The Supreme Court further interpreted the legislation by surmising that the death penalty for rape of a woman or a child in which death did not occur was extreme. Despite the unclear context of the morals and values promoted by the amendment, the interpretation provided by the Supreme Court of the United States is clearly based on prohibitory sanctions against excessive punishments or sentences.
3. a) Numerous cases in the United States have been based on the Eighth Amendment. The most notable of such cases is the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana. In 1998, Patrick Kennedy was arrested for the aggravated rape of his eight-year-old stepdaughter. The accused, Kennedy, had falsely accused other unidentifiable individuals of raping his daughter. Furthermore, he had coerced the girl to allege that the persons responsible for raping her were two neighborhood boys. However, after exclusive investigation, it was discovered that Kennedy was indeed the perpetrator thus leading to his arrest. After receiving testimony from the victimized daughter and presentation of clear evidence, the jury of the court of Louisiana found Kennedy guilty against aggravated rape of a child and unanimously sentenced him to death without reference to the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment in its Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause states that the death penalty cannot be passed in cases where the criminal act committed did not result in death nor did they intend to result in death (Barnet and Bedau, 767). The precedent set by the case of Coker v. Georgia asserting the barring of the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman did not provide clarity in child rape. Furthermore, the reasoning that child rape was exceptional and should thus be punishable by death further violated the Eighth Amendment, which surmised that disproportionate sentences for respective crimes were extreme and unprecedented. After a petition by Kennedy to halt the death penalty, The United States Supreme Court overturned the death penalty and deemed it unconstitutional since it did not uphold the Eighth Amendment (Parrish, 335).
b) Another case involving the Eighth Amendment was the case of Miller v. Alabama. In 2012, Evan Miller was convicted of murder and thus sentenced to a compulsory prison term that saw them receive life imprisonment without option of parole. In 2003, Miller with his friend stole Cole Canon’s money while he was passed out in his trailer. However, when Miller attempted to return the wallet back, Canon caught him, but Miller’s friend hit Canon with a baseball hat after which Miller took the bat and beat Cannon repeatedly until he became unconscious. Moreover, the two boys agreed to cover up the evidence by burning Canon’s trailer after which he succumbed from the fire and injuries. Alabama law allowed that Miller be charged as an adult instead of juvenile. The State then sentenced Miller to life imprisonment without the chance of parole. The argument was because the level of crime committed was proportional to the sentence and was thus permissible under the Eighth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court granted judicial review of the case, asserted that capital punishment was excessive for minors, and thus concluded that the life sentence violated the Amendment’s act concerning the prohibition of mandatory life sentences without prospect of parole for juvenile offenders (Savage, 2012).
The Eighth Amendment together with other constitutional legislations has shaped the way in which judicial proceedings are tasked. The amendment has been too general on the stipulation of boundaries to punishments offered to offenders. Therefore, it requires revision. However, it should also be noted that any law created by man is imperfect and will always have a few mistakes, which can be corrected. The amendments of the United States Constitution are the pride of America and in order for them to be carried out effectively, the law and people should work together for the efficiency of the amendments to be seen.
Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo A. Bedau. Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011. Print.
Parrish, Michael E. The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment: Judging Death. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2010. Print.
Savage, David. “Supreme Court rules mandatory juvenile life without parole cruel and unusual.” The Los Angeles Times. 25 June 2012. Print.