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8: No cruel and unusual punishment

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

8TH AMENDMENT (1791)

When French soldiers on Cat Island, La., rebelled in 1754, they killed their commander and fled. Choctaw Indians brought them back for judgment by the French colonial governor. Three were pulled apart on a wheel. The fourth, a Swiss mercenary, was nailed into a wooden box that was then sawed in half.

While the Eighth Amendment was not enacted to abolish execution, the idea of making the process more humane was put on the American agenda -- somewhat. "Judicial burnings were a common thing. The last one occurred in the 1830s," says M. Watt Espy, whose research into executions in North America catalogs a variety of hangings, shootings, burnings and tortures.

"What folks argue is that the method should demonstrate our civility," says Espy's co-researcher, Pittsburgh native John Ortiz Smykla. "I don't know if execution can ever be humane, but that was the argument for lethal injection," Smykla says. Lethal injection, considered largely painless, is now an approved method of execution in Pennsylvania and 36 other states. Sixty-one people have been put to death in the United States this year, all by lethal injection.

The "injection room" at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Rockview, Centre County, opened for business in 1995, replacing the electric chair last used in 1962. Later, the room was moved to a former hospital a quarter-mile from the main prison building. Three men, all convicted of murder and all "volunteers" who gave up further appeals, have been put to death on this table since capital punishment returned to the state. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, however, still refuses to say what chemicals are used.


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


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