Cruel and Unusual Punishment, What does the Constitution Mean?


The Eighth Amendment in only three words imposes a constitutional limitation upon punishment: It cannot be “cruel and unusual.” What did the framers mean? The courts have interpreted the words “cruel and unusual” in a flexible and dynamic manner reflecting a evolving society. The Crime Act of 1790 mandated that a person be executed for Treason. Not only did you have to kill them; the body had to be mutilated. Mutilation of a corpse in itself is both cruel and unusual. At that time it was the Law, we don’t do that anymore, we have evolved. The eighth amendment has been affected more by the evolving change of society than any of the other Amendments. Even though we can see the evolving of societies common sense and decency where the eighth amendment is involved, society continues to show a primitive style of justice by using electrocution, the gas chamber and lethal injection as forms of executing the death penalty. These methods inflict pain and in some cases disfigurement and charring of a human body. I consider this the same as mutilating a body in 1790. We have known the outcome of an electrocution after the very first one was performed in 1889. And, the other two methods aforementioned are just as bad if not worst.

First lets look at the Electric Chair. A New York dentist Albert Southwick saw a man accidentally electrocute himself on a power generator with no visible pain. He told a friend in the legislator and the idea of executing people with electricity was born. By 1888, the idea was made a reality by the New York Legislation. The State of New York added Chapter 489 to its state code establishing electrocution as its state’s official execution method. The only way to determine what would happen to a human being was to execute one. Tests had only been performed on dogs, cats, and horses.
In March of 1889, William Kemmler murdered his lover. He was sentenced to die in Auburn Prison’s electric chair. It took eight minutes to kill him. [http://civil liberty.About.Com/od/capital punishment/p/HistoryChair.htm] His execution was brutal. George Westinghouse who provided the generator for the chair said “the job could have been done better with an ax.”(canan67) The brutality of the Kemmler execution made a large impact on what people thought about the electric chair. The chair had failed miserably. Kemmler was subjected to a great deal of unnecessary pain, which the eighth amendment strictly prohibited. Some people thought after seeing the brutality of the electric chair it would be done away with for good. Despite that fact, the chair stayed around. It became the most used method of execution in the twentieth century.(Radelt 1989) The reports, comments, as well as other statements of those who have witnessed a electrocution are very similar. A voltage of two thousand is sent through the human body for 30 seconds. The electricity is sent thought electrodes placed on a clean shaved head as well as the legs. The electrodes reach temperatures around nineteen thousand degrees. They sometimes get hotter than that. During the electrocution the body will leap and cringe. The electrodes placed on the top of the head make the brain the temperature of boiling water. The eyeballs can actually pop out the sockets. The face as well as the fingers, legs, and toes are burned and greatly disfigured. Many times the person being electrocuted loses control of their bodily functions. Vomit and blood spurting out of the mouth and nose is very common. There is usually a continuous discharge of saliva from the mouth. Doctors who have performed autopsies on electrocuted men reported that the liver is so hot that it cannot be touched by the human hand. Nicole Tesla studied the effects of electrocution on the human body. She concluded that the current flows along a restricted path, in the meantime the vital organs maybe preserved…, the pain to great for us to imagine is induced.. For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last an eternity…(104)
Between 1930 and 1980, 945 Men and 7 Women were put to death in the Gas Chamber. Gassing was introduced by Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton. He was a Toxicologist and thought that this method would be more humane than hanging or shooting. The State of Nevada adopted gassing into law in 1921. The original idea was to gas the inmate by surprise while he/she was sleeping in their cell. When this method did not work out, so the Gas Chamber was introduced. It was invented by Major Delos A. Turner an Army Medical Corps Officer and was first used on Feb. 8th, 1924. Gee Jong was the first inmate to be put to death in the gas chamber. His lawyers fought the courts to show that gassing was “cruel and unusual” punishment under the eighth amendment but lost. Jong was left in the chamber for thirty (30) minutes to ensure he was dead. Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli was the first women executed in the gas chamber for murder on November 21, 1941. At San Quentin Prison the Gas Chamber is in a room in the basement. It is a octagonal metal box that is painted pale green. It is six feet across and eight feet high. It has a rubber sealed steel door that closes by a large locking wheel. There are windows in five of the sides for witness to view the execution. Inside there are tow chairs labeled “A & B”, two people can be executed at the same time, and it has been done. The inmate is strapped into the chair by attaching straps across the upper and lower legs, arms, thighs and chest. A stethoscope is affixed to the chest so that the Dr. on the outside can monitor the heartbeat and pronounce the death. Under the chair is a bowl filled with sulphuric acid mixed with distilled water; with a pound of sodium cyanide pellets suspended in a gauze bag above. After the door is sealed and the Warden gives the signal, and the executioner in a separate room operates a lever that releases the cyanide into the liquid. This causes a Chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas, which rises through the holes in the chair. The inmate is advised to take deep breaths so they die quickly and shorten the suffering. Witness say there is “evidence of extreme horror, pain and strangling.” The eyes pop out, the skin turns purple and the inmate begins to drool.” Cyanide causes hypoxia, which means oxygen is cut off from the brain and other vital organs. This causes spasms and epileptic seizures. Because the inmate is strapped down the involuntary body movement is restrained. After the inmate first inhales, she/he will become unable to breathe, but will not lose consciousness immediately. Then come pain and extreme anxiety. The pain is felt in the arm, shoulders, back and chest almost immediately. It is described by Dr. R. Thaystman of John Hopkins University as the sensation and pain a person feels when having a heart attack. He stated he wouldn’t use cyanide gas to kill animals it was just inhumane. It takes about 9.3 minutes to die in the chamber. An exhaust fan is used to suck the gas out the chamber. After 30 minutes, staff wearing gas mask and rubber gloves go into the chamber to remove the corpse. The corpse is sprayed with ammonia to neutralize any traces of cyanide that may remain. Then, the hair on the corpse is ruffled to release any trapped cyanide gas. Finally the corpse is removed.
Most states have abandoned gassing. Most of the chambers were built in the 1920’s, fear of them leaking and causing harm to staff and witnesses has halted their use. Cost is another great factor because it would cost $300,000.00 to replace, and when compared with the cost of lethal injections it could not be justified.
In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, though it would be five more years until Charles Brooks would become the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 2, 1982. Today, 35 of the 36 states that have the death penalty use this method. When this method is used, the condemned person is usually bound to a gurney and a member of the execution team positions several heart monitors on this skin. Two needles (one is a back-up) are then inserted into usable veins, usually in the inmates arms. Long tubes connect the needle through a hole in a cement block wall to several intravenous drips. The first is a harmless saline solution that is started immediately. Then, at the warden's signal, a curtain is raised exposing the inmate to the witnesses in an adjoining room. Then, the inmate is injected with sodium thiopental - an anesthetic, which puts the inmate to sleep. Next flows pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscle system and stops the inmate's breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the condemned person is unconscious. (Ecenbarger, 1994 and Weisberg, 1991) Medical ethics preclude doctors from participating in executions. However, a doctor will certify the inmate is dead. This lack of medical participation can be problematic because often injections are performed by inexperienced technicians or orderlies. If a member of the execution team injects the drugs into a muscle instead of a vein, or if the needle becomes clogged, extreme pain can result. Many prisoners have damaged veins resulting from intravenous drug use and it is sometimes difficult to find a usable vein, resulting in long delays while the inmate remains strapped to the gurney. (Ecenbarger,1994 and Weisberg, 1991)
One of the worst botched executions by lethal injections was the case of Angel Nieves Diaz, who was executed by lethal injections in 2006 in Florida. Death by injection should only take about 15 minutes. The inmate should be unconscious within 3-5 minutes. Diaz took 34 minutes, and he was conscious for at least the first 25. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections claimed that Diaz felt no pain during the execution, but the Coroner’s investigation belied that claim. The Supreme Court ruled that death row prisoners may challenge lethal injection procedures under the eighth amendment. Hill vs.
Crosby (2006)
When you look at the three most used means of execution in the United States, electrocution, gassing, and lethal injection, it is clear that these methods exemplify that they can cause a human to experience a horrible and excruciatingly painful death, which is strictly prohibited under the constitution. Even though the first use of electrocution fail, we continued to use it. In the case of Willie Francis, he survived after two attempts to electrocute him. The execution was stopped. However, his lawyers appeal to the Courts was lost, and he was put back on death row and electrocuted a third time, which killed him. No matter how you interpret these three words: “Cruel and Unusual,” I feel the methods we use are in violation of the eighth amendment. I have to much fear of executing an innocent person to be in favor of the death penalty. The Innocent Project founded by Barry Scheck and Co-founded by Peter Nuefeld, use DNA to exonerate innocent convicted prisoners. Of the 232 post-conviction exonerations in the United States, 17 of the 232 inmates were exonerated through DNA, and had served time on death row. The NCADP(The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) reports that 115 prisoners on death row have been exonerated . There are other factors such as racial bias that affect the death penalty. There are more people of color on death row than whites. Several people have been executed wrongfully. But, you cant right a wrong after the execution. I think we should just use life in prison instead of the death penalty. Being placed on Death Row in itself is “cruel and unusual punishment.” I don’t think I could wake up day after day knowing I was going to die as soon as the government saw fit. The average time on death row is six or more years. That’s a long time to wait to die. So very cruel.

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