Cruel and unusual punishment is a platitude found in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, was written to ensure that the new American nation would not suffer from the excesses of the former English overlords, such as drawing-and-quartering, death by torture (no matter how entertaining it was to contemplate it being done to Mel Gibson in Braveheart), or repeats of Mr. Bean.
That the Founding Founders in the execution-happy colonies would have written an amendment to ban executions entirely is so unthinkable that it has taken the finest minds in the United States to explain why it means exactly this.
Most uses of the Eighth Amendment in the U.S. court system therefore concern executions, the exception being the rare lawsuit to demand premium cable channels on prison televisions.
In fact, no prisoner has ever been drawn-and-quartered or tortured in the United States at all. And slavery, the Alternative Minimum Tax, and Instant Replay in Major League Baseball are technically not even "punishments."
The Supreme Court, then, has had the task of understanding what the Founders could have meant by writing an Amendment that, on the surface, seems meaningless. In the American renaissance called the Great Society, it first occurred to the Court that the death penalty itself could be "cruel and unusual punishment."
As in most things, the Court advanced this "jurisprudence" gradually, first saving from execution only:
- The insane, who obviously did not know what they were doing
- Premeditated murders, because the nation needs their expertise and attention to detail in National Economic Planning
- Child killers, because we need to give them a chance to grow up
- Spouse killers, because we need to give them a chance to grow old
- Elderly killers, because sometimes writing kids out of the will just doesn't work
- African Americans, because we don't execute a fair share of white folks and we wouldn't want blacks to take this the wrong way
- Authors of gun massacres, because this is the fault of gun shows, SUVs, and rodeos.
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