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The Eighth Amendment

This amendment prohibits excessive fines and excessive bail, as well as cruel and unusual punishment.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Eighth Amendment protects something basic and crucial in a free state: physical integrity. While the portion that prohibits the state’s imposition of excessive fines and bails is certainly important when protecting citizens from abuses by the state, the more highly contested portion of this amendment seems to be the one addressing “cruel and unusual punishment.”

One major point of disagreement when discussing the state’s punishment of criminals includes whether the death penalty falls under the labels “cruel and unusual.” One side of the argument holds that the death penalty is not “cruel and unusual” when one has committed a particularly heinous crime, such as torture and murder, particularly serial or mass murder; it is “an eye for an eye,” an effective and justifiable way for the state to discourage such horrific crimes, to protect the public from such “maniacs,” and to prevent overcrowding in prisons that must be maintained with taxpayer money. It seems logical on its face, but significant issues arise when one considers the issue of the death penalty more thoroughly.


The execution of innocent people who had been falsely convicted certainly leaves guilty blood on the hands of the state, and such instances are not unheard of. Death is permanent; the state cannot release the convicted from death if they are found to be innocent. However, basing this argument on the possible fallibility of our court system does not seem, to me, to be strong, practical, or convincing. Rather, I take issue with courts’ taking it upon themselves to decide whether a person gets to live or die, whether their offense against society is severe enough to cost them their life. Placing that power in state hands, trusting the court system with such a deeply moral dilemma, something so basic and irretrievable to the human person as its life or death, seems to me to be a crucial philosophical  issue in this debate. Perhaps it is easier and more practical to kill dangerous criminals, but philosophically speaking, what qualifies as “dangerous” enough to warrant execution? Who decides what crime is “heinous” enough, what it means to be “heinous”? Who has the authority to decide whether someone lives or dies?

I often hear from pro-death penalty advocates that one has relinquished their own right to life (by this I mean right to not be arbitrarily killed) in destroying the life of another. I wonder whether it is only in killing another person one loses such a right; does horrendous rape or torture of another count? Anti-death penalty advocates will argue that death is an inhumane punishment because criminals with mental illness can be rehabilitated; I’m not so sure everyone deserves a second chance.
The language of the Eighth Amendment is brilliantly vague. It prohibits atrocities of state abuse, but leaves room for strenuous debate.


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The Sixth Amendment

This amendment protects the right to a fair and speedy public trial by jury, including the rights to be notified of the accusations, to confront the accuser, to obtain witnesses and to retain counsel

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. 

The “liberty and justice for all” part is a powerful final assertion in our pledge of allegiance, and it is this principle of universal, unbiased justice that the Sixth Amendment was established to protect. Of course, there have been alterations to this original amendment (such as specifying certain conditions under which a trial open to the public would prevent the proper unfolding of justice, and that no jury is required for minor offenses); but the basic idea remains the same. To prevent abuses of the power to arrest by the state, these rights to a speedy trial, an unbiased jury, witnesses for and against the defendant, and to an attorney are guaranteed by this amendment.

It’s no secret that in American history, some citizens have been considered “less than” other citizens. Black citizens were denied certain legal rights, such as the right to be witnesses in a court of law, provide evidence, and engage in a lawsuit, until the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed their rights of citizenship (much to the Southern states dismay). It is just as important to be treated unbiasedly and with proper respect when accused of breaking the law as it is to be equally protected under the law.

In light of the recent abuse of power by our police force, it’s even clearer why this amendment (and the entire Bill of Rights, for that matter) is crucial.

There was no time to even consider Michael Brown’s Sixth Amendment rights; he was gunned down, no explanation, no formal arrest procedure. Eric Garner was choked to death, with an illegal chokehold administered by an officer, and none of his rights even considered before he suffocated. It’s almost as if we’re revisiting the injustice represented by Tom Robinson’s conviction in To Kill a Mockingbird, except nowadays we don’t even make it to the courtroom before the prejudice and brutality rear their ugly heads.

Injustice has creeped into law enforcement, the supposed stewards of equality and justice in our country. The Sixth Amendment was established because at some point, our country agreed that fair and unbiased treatment of the accused was a crucial part of maintaining the individual citizen’s integrity. It seems we’ve been ignoring how such rights have been implemented, and it’s clear that we’ve allowed racial prejudice to infiltrate our criminal justice system.
The Bill of Rights was formulated to prevent abuses against citizens at the hands of the state. “Liberty and justice for all” is clearly established in our constitution, and we say we believe in it at the normative level. But considering how our implementation of such principles has gone, the rights given to all Americans in the  Bill of Rights need to be better realized at the practical level.



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60th Anniversary of the Death of Emmett Till

Emmitt_Till#NeverForget #SayTheirNames

A responsible, funny, and high-spirited child was a normal description from those who knew Emmett Till. Emmett was and African-American child born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois. This kid was murdered when he was only 14 years old, on August 28, 1955. The reason of his murder? Flirting with a white woman.

“Emmett was a funny guy all the time. He had a suitcase of jokes that he liked to tell. He loved to make people laugh. He was a chubby kid; most of the guys were skinny, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. He made a lot of friends at McCosh.” — Richard Heard, Till’s classmate and childhood friend.

The facts

While visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, Emmett and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments. There, he talked to Carolyn Bryant. She was a clerk at a small grocery store, and her husband was the proprietor. The details of what happened inside the store that day are not 100% clear. Some of Emmett’s friend later reported that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of Carolyn.

Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went to Emmett’s great-uncle’s house. They took him away to a barn, where they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head, then tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and disposed his body in the Tallahatchie River.

It took three days to find his body and retrieve it from the river.

The body was returned to his mother in Chicago, where she insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing.


“It never occurred to me that Bobo (Emmett) would be killed for whistling at a white woman.” — Simeon Wright, Emmett’s cousin

The Trial

Because blacks and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for blacks to openly accuse whites in court, and by doing so, Wright put his own life in grave danger.

The defense’s primary strategy was arguing that the body pulled from the river could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Till was dead at all. The defense asserted that Bryant and Milam had taken Till, but had let him go. They attempted to prove that Mose Wright could not identify Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till from his cabin.

Despite the evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23, the panel of white male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges.

In January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.

The Impact

Through the constant attention it received, Till’s case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) asked Mamie Till Bradley to tour the country relating the events of her son’s life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP had ever known.

NAACP operative Amzie Moore considers Till the start of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very least, in Mississippi.

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