The Supreme Court: Punishing the Criminals

Punishing the Criminals

Even after the evidence is collected properly and the arrests are made according to the rules, government officials must still be careful not to overstep the rights set in the Constitution when punishing convicted criminals. Criminals are protected from being unfairly convicted or punished by rights stated in two amendments—the Sixth Amendment (which requires a jury trial) and the Eighth Amendment (which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”).

Over the years the question of whether the death penalty is “cruel and unusual” punishment has been raised many times in cases that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. This question was even raised as recently as 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia in which the Court ruled the death penalty was “cruel and unusual” punishment for the mentally retarded.

In addition to discussing Atkins in this section, I'll explore the issues in the 2002 landmark case, Ring v. Arizona, which declared the death penalty sentencing schemes in five states unconstitutional (Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, and Ohio). Over 150 death penalty cases will need to be reviewed because of this ruling. This decision will likely affect an additional four states (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, and Indiana) with similar sentencing schemes where there are over 500 prisoners waiting on death row.

The issue of “cruel and unusual” punishment is not only raised in death penalty cases. For example, the third case I'll review in this section is Lockyer v. Andrade decided in 2003, which questioned whether penalties required in “third strike” cases were “cruel and unusual.”

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.