Is capital punishment a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids
cruel and unusual punishment?
The courts positions of the death penalty has changed over the years. For centuries societies have used death as the ultimate penalty for crime. In the 1960's, the court ruled against the death penalty as a "cruel and unusual punishment", which was forbidden by the eighth amendment of the Constitution. By the 1990's the death penalty was again in wide use supported by the court and Congress, which continually expanded by legislation the crimes for which death would be an acceptable penalty.
Supreme court cases that have felt the death penalty was unconstitutional include Roberts vs. Louisiana and Furman vs. Georgia. Roberts vs. Louisiana, (1976) was a case that tried Roberts, who robbed a store in Louisiana. During the robbery, Roberts shot and an killed an on duty police officer. He was convicted of first degree murder and was sentenced to death. He appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision was that it was unconstitutional for everyone convicted of murder to be sentenced to death.
The most important case that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional is Furman vs. Georgia, 1972. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a majority of five to four, ruled that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual" and thus violated the eighth amendment. Justice Brennen thought the death penalty was "cruel and unusual in all cases, a denial of the executed person's humanity, and uniquely degrading to human dignity" (The American Heritage History of the Bill of Rights, p. 93.). Thurgood Marshall also agreed with this statement.
Punishment is a necessary part in any legal system. Part of the Eighth Amendment is to protect individuals from punishments that may be too harsh for the crimes committed. Many controversies have often occurred over what exactly is "cruel and unusual punishments"? When Jesse Tafero was electrocuted in Florida in 1990, it took three jolts to kill him. It was a frightful sight with flames burning the mask over his head. Is killing a man in this manner not "cruel and unusual punishment"? The use of the gas chamber seemed to be a better alternative than the electric chair. Supposedly, it brought about a painless death as a person is strapped down into a chair and a lethal dose of potassium chloride is pumped into the air of that room. The result has been a spectacle of condemned person's choking for several minutes before subsiding to death. Many spectators, prison officials, state authorities, even executioners themselves have stated that the use of the gas chamber is too cruel and should have been stopped. The use of lethal injection seems to be the best way because it seems to be painless. Of course, we do not know if the transition from life to death is painful or not.
The death penalty remains as a way for the government to inflict the ultimate punishment. But there is no way to know if this punishment has been administered fairly and without bias. Once it is administered, it cannot be reversed. On this basis, it should no longer be tolerated under the provisions of the Eighth Amendment.
American History The Easy Way. William O. Kelogg Second Edition, (Barron's Educational Series, Inc. Hauppauge, NY 1995) p. 397.
The American Heritage History of the Bill of Rights, "The Eighth Amendment," Vincent Buronelli. (Gallin House Press, Inc., 1991) p.92-94.