The death penalty is an archaic procedure which operates on a rampant racial bias. Its use is not only tremendously expensive but also ineffective in complying to its purpose : deterring crime and controlling criminal behavior. The courts have struggled to define” cruel and unusual,” because the term is ultimately vague and the definitions applied to terms like cruel and unusual change over time. Customs also change over time as societies viewpoints and ideologies adapt to into the future.
An example of changes in the definition about the 8th amendment is seen in the landmark case of Weems vs United States (1910), where Weems was imprisoned for falsifying a public and official document and as a result was sentenced to 15 years. On top of his unusual sentence, Weems was subjected to labor with chains on his ankles and constant surveillance. Nevertheless, the court found Weems sentence as a violation of the 8th amendment considering his sentence was excessively cruel when compared to other prisoners who entered prison for worst crimes.
The Weems’s case became extremely important precedent because it is the first instance when the 8th amendment’s applicability was challenged at a legal level. Justice Marshall in his opinion also discusses the case Trop v Dulles, where Trop lost his United States citizenship as a result of his military desertion. The courts also ruled this punishment as” cruel and unusual,” because they believed depriving someone of their citizenship violated the 8th amendment.
Justice Marshall includes this case because of its full on cruelty towards the individual. This is done to illustrate the evolution of the legal system when it considers the “cruel and unusual,” clause of the 8th amendment. The precedents set by both the Weems case and the Trop case become extremely important since these start creating a standard to which the 8th amendment has to adhere to. As a result, its use starts becoming limited and the legal system starts questioning its effectiveness and legitimacy.
The legal system was created to control citizens behavior through the establishment of a governmental body that punishes those who behave outside the law’s guidelines. Therefore it achieves its purpose by controlling and regulating societies’ behavior through effective and rationale punishment. If the government sets out a policy like the death penalty its use must be justified not only legally, but also socially, politically, and in execution. Instances, where these doctrines are misused and misinterpreted by the officials in charge of implementing them, brings into question its overall legitimacy.
Justice Marshall states there are ” six purposes conceivably served by capital punishment: retribution, deterrence, prevention of repetitive criminal acts, encouragement of guilty pleas and confessions, eugenics, and economy,” (63). These purposes provide an idea to justify the use of capital punishment. Yet, if the use of the penalty does not help with the with controlling crime, specifically with the uses of the ideas provided by Justice Marshall, then its overall use should be questioned.
The blatant racial bias found towards African-Americans in death penalty sentencing puts into question the legitimacy of the legal system and more specifically the effectiveness of the death penalty. Thus, if the policy discriminately targets specific races, minorities, and ethnicities it is evident this policy must be examined and questioned. Moreover, as Justice Marshall states” statistics show that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is no greater in those communities where executions take place than in other communities… olice are no safer in communities that retain the sanction than in those that have abolished,” (64).
The statistics make it evident clear the death penalty fails in controlling crime. That being said, if there is no correlation between the death penalty and deterrence, then there is no real justifiable reason both legally and morally to keep its implementation. Currently, the death penalty is another rampantly discriminatory policy that operates inside the United States.
Thus, it is clear that the death penalty legislation has to be amended because it’s the killing by the state has not provided sufficient parameters in order to justify its use. The death penalty is unconstitutional because it violates the 8th amendment of the United States constitution by subjecting citizens to death with a policy that has not never achieved its intentions. The death penalty remains constitutional because of the autonomy gap between states and the federal government.
States under the US constitution are allowed a certain amount of autonomy in order pass the legislation they see fit for their citizens. Although the federal government has a hierarchy over state law, their autonomy allows them to set up laws as these meet the federal requirements i. e. minimum wage and environmental policy. Although legally state autonomy seems nice on paper, in execution it allows the state to choose whether or not they would like the death penalty to operate in their state. Up to date, there are 32 states that allow the death penalty after the Supreme Court decision of Furman v Georgia (1972).
It is evident that despite the statistics demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the death penalty, that these states believe in its alleged deterrence. However, outside of the legal spectrum, there are other reasons to why capital remains a law. Justice Marshall in his opinion stated one of these reasons as he said ” it has often been noted that American citizens know almost nothing about capital punishment. ” (65) Thus, the less awareness from citizens about the failure of the death penalty will lead them to believe it has a functioning role in the legal system.
Without proper awareness, the nation will not be aware of the discriminatory racial bias found with the use of the death penalty and its nonexistent effect on deterring crime. Moreover, the citizens who are unaware cannot pressure their governments, mayors, governors, and state legislators to put an end to the policy. If citizens were to demand the abolishment of the death penalty, the government would face pressure because the citizen’s votes could change if the issue was not addressed.
Additionally, Justice Marshall quotes Sir James Stephens, an avid supporter of capital punishment who believes that” if life imprisonment is the maximum penalty for a crime such as murder, an offender who is serving a life sentence cannot be deterred from murdering a fellow inmate or prison officer,” (64). Although he raises a valid point, his opinion fails to take into account the socio-economic complexities that influence citizens behavior, at times leads them to commit a crime, and target specific communities for arrests.
Additionally, he failed to consider the blatant discrimination towards poor citizens and racial minorities on which justice system operates. It is this lack of unawareness that helps the state continue to operate and pursue capital punishment on its citizens. Evidently, the unawareness of citizens along state autonomy create a situation where capital punishments remains unchallenged, despite its ineffectiveness, and leaves the nation divided as to whether or not to keep the policy.