Furman v. Georgia/Concurrence Marshall I

Furman v. Georgia
Concurring Opinion, Section I by Thurgood Marshall
Introduction I II III IV V VI VII Appendices

The Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishments derives from English law. In 1583, John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, turned the High Commission into a permanent ecclesiastical court, and the Commission began to use torture to extract confessions from persons suspected of various offenses.[1] Sir Robert Beale protested that cruel and barbarous torture violated Magna Carta, but his protests were made in vain.[2] [408 U.S. 238, 317]

Cruel punishments were not confined to those accused of crimes, but were notoriously applied with even greater relish to those who were convicted. Blackstone described in ghastly detail the myriad of inhumane forms of punishment imposed on persons found guilty of any of a large number of offenses.[3] Death, of course, was the usual result.[4]

The treason trials of 1685 - the "Bloody Assizes" - which followed an abortive rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth, marked the culmination of the parade of horrors, and most historians believe that it was this event that finally spurred the adoption of the English Bill of Rights containing the progenitor of our prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.[5] The conduct of Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys at those trials has been described as an "insane lust for cruelty" which was "stimulated by orders from the King" (James II).[6] The assizes received wide publicity from Puritan pamphleteers and doubtless had some influence on the adoption of a cruel and unusual punishments clause. But, [408 U.S. 238, 318] the legislative history of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 indicates that the assizes may not have been as critical to the adoption of the clause as is widely thought. After William and Mary of Orange crossed the channel to invade England, James II fled. Parliament was summoned into session and a committee was appointed to draft general statements containing "such things as are absolutely necessary to be considered for the better securing of our religion, laws and liberties."[7] An initial draft of the Bill of Rights prohibited "illegal" punishments, but a later draft referred to the infliction by James II of "illegal and cruel" punishments, and declared "cruel and unusual" punishments to be prohibited.[8] The use of the word "unusual" in the final draft appears to be inadvertent.

This legislative history has led at least one legal historian to conclude "that the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Bill of Rights of 1689 was, first, an objection to the imposition of punishments that were unauthorized by statute and outside the jurisdiction of the sentencing court, and second, a reiteration of the English policy against disproportionate penalties,"[9] and not primarily a reaction to the torture of the High Commission, harsh sentences, or the assizes. [408 U.S. 238, 319]

Whether the English Bill of Rights prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments is properly read as a response to excessive or illegal punishments, as a reaction to barbaric and objectionable modes of punishment, or as both, there is no doubt whatever that in borrowing the language and in including it in the Eighth Amendment, our Founding Fathers intended to outlaw torture and other cruel punishments.[10]

The precise language used in the Eighth Amendment first appeared in America on June 12, 1776, in Virginia's "Declaration of Rights,"[5] of which read: "That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."[11] This language was drawn verbatim from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Other States adopted similar clauses,[12] and there is evidence in the debates of the various state conventions that were [408 U.S. 238, 320] called upon to ratify the Constitution of great concern for the omission of any prohibition against torture or other cruel punishments.[13]

The Virginia Convention offers some clues as to what the Founding Fathers had in mind in prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments. At one point George Mason advocated the adoption of a Bill of Rights, and Patrick Henry concurred, stating:

"By this Constitution, some of the best barriers of human rights are thrown away. Is there not an additional reason to have a bill of rights? . . . Congress, from their general powers, may fully go into business of human legislation. They may legislate, in criminal cases, from treason to the lowest offence - petty larceny. They may define crimes and prescribe punishments. In the definition of crimes, I trust they will be directed by what wise representatives ought to be governed by. But when we come to punishments, no latitude ought to be left, nor dependence put on the virtue of representatives. What says our bill of rights? - `that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.' Are you not, therefore, now calling on those gentlemen who are to compose Congress, to prescribe trials and define punishments without this control? Will they find sentiments there similar to this bill of rights? You let them loose; you do more - you depart from the genius of your country. . . .

"In this business of legislation, your members of Congress will loose the restriction of not imposing excessive fines, demanding excessive bail, and inflicting [408 U.S. 238, 321] cruel and unusual punishments. These are prohibited by your declaration of rights. What has distinguished our ancestors? - That they would not admit of tortures, or cruel and barbarous punishment. But Congress may introduce the practice of the civil law, in preference to that of the common law. They may introduce the practice of France, Spain, and Germany - of torturing, to extort a confession of the crime. They will say that they might as well draw examples from those countries as from Great Britain, and they will tell you that there is such a necessity of strengthening the arm of government, that they must have a criminal equity, and extort confession by torture, in order to punish with still more relentless severity. We are then lost and undone."[14]

Henry's statement indicates that he wished to insure that "relentless severity" would be prohibited by the Constitution. Other expressions with respect to the proposed Eighth Amendment by Members of the First Congress indicate that they shared Henry's view of the need for and purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.[15] [408 U.S. 238, 322]

Thus, the history of the clause clearly establishes that it was intended to prohibit cruel punishments. We must now turn to the case law to discover the manner in which courts have given meaning to the term "cruel."


  1. Granucci, "Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted:" The Original Meaning, 57 Calif. L. Rev. 839, 848 (1969).
  2. Ibid. Beale's views were conveyed from England to America and were first written into American law by the Reverend Nathaniel Ward who wrote the Body of Liberties for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Clause 46 of that work read: "For bodilie punishments [408 U.S. 238, 317] we allow amongst us none that are inhumane, Barbarous or cruel." 1 B. Schwartz, The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 71, 77 (1971).
  3. 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *376-377. See also 1 J. Chitty, The Criminal Law 785-786 (5th ed. 1847); Sherman, ". . . Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted," 14 Crime & Delin. 73, 74 (1968).
  4. Not content with capital punishment as a means of retribution for crimes, the English also provided for attainder ("dead in law") as the immediate and inseparable concomitant of the death sentence. The consequences of attainder were forfeiture of real and personal estates and corruption of blood. An attainted person could not inherit land or other hereditaments, nor retain those he possessed, nor transmit them by descent to any heir. Descents were also obstructed whenever posterity derived a title through one who was attained. 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *380-381.
  5. 5.0 5.1 E. g., 2 J. Story, On the Constitution 1903, p. 650 (5th ed. 1891).
  6. 2 G. Trevelyan, History of England 467 (1952 reissue).
  7. Granucci, supra, n. 5, at 854.
  8. Id., at 855.
  9. Id., at 860. In reaching this conclusion, Professor Granucci relies primarily on the trial of Titus Oates as the impetus behind the adoption of the clause. Oates was a minister of the Church of England who proclaimed the existence of a plot to assassinate King Charles II. He was tried for perjury, convicted, and sentenced to a fine of 2,000 marks, life imprisonment, whippings, pillorying four times a year, and defrocking. Oates petitioned both the House of Commons and the House of Lords for release from judgment. The House of Lords rejected his petition, but a minority of its members concluded that the King's Bench had no jurisdiction to compel defrocking [408 U.S. 238, 319] and that the other punishments were barbarous, inhumane, unchristian, and unauthorized by law. The House of Commons agreed with the dissenting Lords. Id., at 857-859.
  10. Most historians reach this conclusion by reading the history of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as indicating that it was a reaction to inhumane punishments. Professor Granucci reaches the same conclusion by finding that the draftsmen of the Constitution misread the British history and erroneously relied on Blackstone. Granucci, supra, n. 5, at 862-865. It is clear, however, that prior to the adoption of the Amendment there was some feeling that a safeguard against cruelty was needed and that this feeling had support in past practices. See n. 6, supra, and accompanying text.
  11. Grannucci, supra, n. 5, at 840; 1 Schwartz, supra, n. 6, at 276, 278.
  12. See, e. g., Delaware Declaration of Rights (1776), Maryland Declaration of Rights (1776), Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (1780), and New Hampshire Bill of Rights (1783). 1 Schwartz, supra, n. 6, at 276, 278; 279, 281; 337, 343; 374, 379.
  13. See 2 J. Elliot's Debates 111 (2d ed. 1876); 3 id., at 447-481. See also, 2 Schwartz, supra, n. 6, at 629, 674, 762, 852, 968.
  14. 3 Elliot, supra, n. 17, at 446-448. A comment by George Mason which misinterprets a criticism leveled at himself and Patrick Henry is further evidence of the intention to prohibit torture and the like by prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments. Id., at 452.
  15. 1 Annals of Cong. 782-783 (1789). There is some recognition of the fact that a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments is a flexible prohibition that may change in meaning as the mores of a society change, and that may eventually bar certain punishments not barred when the Constitution was adopted. Ibid. (remarks of Mr. Livermore of New Hampshire). There is also evidence that the general opinion at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted was that it prohibited every punishment that was not "evidently necessary." W. Bradford, An Enquiry How Far the Punishment of Death is Necessary in Pennsylvania (1793), reprinted in 12 Am. J. Legal Hist. 122, 127 (1968).