Guest Post by Colin Dayan, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, Vanderbilt University
There is a real legal history to the death penalty. In some ways it is as barbaric as the fact of execution itself. It also helps to explain why the death penalty in the United States will not go away.
Since the 18th century, “cruel” and “unusual” have been coupled in our legal language and courts. Their rhetorical ambiguity has been alternately used to protect prisoners and to legitimize violence against them. Only at the start of the 20th century in Weems v. United States, and again in 1958 with the opinion of Chief Justice Earl Warren in Trop v. Dulles, did the Supreme Court turn away from the mere ban on “barbarous” punishments and begin to consider whether punishments were disproportionate to the offense. In Trop, Warren emphasized a flexible interpretation of the 8th Amendment that would adapt to enlightened public opinion. The “dignity of man,” he said, was the linchpin of the 8th Amendment.
The 8th Amendment attracted great attention during Furman vs. Georgia in 1972. This landmark case declared capital punishment to be cruel and unusual — and therefore unconstitutional. Not only was it “degrading to human dignity,” wrote Justice William J. Brennan Jr., but it also had proved to be “irrational and arbitrary.” Justice Potter Stewart said: “These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” The court voted 5 to 4 to strike down every capital punishment law in the United States.