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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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Caroline Peterson

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