The Gross Injustices of Capital Punishment: A Torturous Practice and Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Astute Appraisal of the Death Penalty’s Cruelty, Discriminatory Use, and Unconstitutionality
Through the centuries, capital punishment and torture have been used by monarchs, authoritarian regimes, and judicial systems around the world. Although torture is now expressly outlawed by international law, capital punishment—questioned by Quakers in the seventeenth century and by the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria and many others in the following century—has been authorized over time by various legislative bodies, including in the United States. It was Beccaria’s book, Dei delitti e delle pene (1764), translated into French and then into English as An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1767), that fueled the still-ongoing international movement to outlaw the death penalty. An edict of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, issued in 1786, made Tuscany the first jurisdiction in Western civilization to abolish capital punishment for all crimes. In 2021, decades after Justice Thurgood Marshall spoke out against “the gross injustices in the administration of capital punishment” and filed relentless dissents asserting that the death penalty is a per se violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Commonwealth of Virginia became one of the latest jurisdictions to abolish capital punishment.
In the more than 250 years since the publication of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, much penal reform and social change has occurred, including with respect to interrogation, criminal justice, and punishment practices. Judicial torture, for example, was once explicitly authorized in civil law countries in continental Europe, but the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment now expressly prohibits both physical and mental forms of torture. In addition, Western penal systems have abandoned non-lethal corporal punishments—once a staple of centuries-old legal systems. The English common law and the Eighth Amendment, in fact, have long been understood to prohibit torture, though the concept of torture was understood much differently in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than it is in the twenty-first century. England’s monarchs, acting outside the common-law prohibition, previously made use of devices of torture such as the rack and the thumbscrew, and the U.S. Supreme Court—in the nineteenth century—explicitly approved the use of public shooting and electrocution as methods of execution even as it simultaneously held that the Eighth Amendment bars torturous punishments. European countries, including England, now explicitly forbid executions altogether through two protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights. Significantly, although the English “Bloody Code” once authorized death sentences for scores of offenses along with various non-lethal corporal punishments such as ear cropping and the pillory, bodily punishments such as branding and the stocks are no longer part of Western penal codes.
This Article contextualizes the modern death penalty debate and recalls the cogent arguments that Justice Thurgood Marshall made against capital punishment in his judicial opinions. It then shows how Justice Marshall’s vocal and pragmatic critique of capital punishment—one rooted in his own experience as a civil rights lawyer in capital cases and, later, as a justice—should be taken seriously and adopted by present-day U.S. Supreme Court justices. In laying out Justice Marshall’s persuasive arguments against capital punishment, the Article points out that mock (or simulated) executions and other threats of death or bodily harm in other contexts (e.g., with respect to custodial interrogations) are already treated as impermissible acts of psychological torture. With Justice Marshall regularly classifying the death penalty as a “cruel and unusual punishment” in his powerful, well-grounded dissents, this Article asserts that those dissents against capital punishment should become the law of the land in the twenty-first century. Not only is capital punishment cruel and unusual and a violation of equal protection of the laws as Justice Marshall contended, but it is clear that, in light of the modern definition of torture, statesponsored death threats must be classified under the rubric of torture—what the law considers the extreme form of cruelty. The absolute prohibition of torture is already considered to be a jus cogens norm of international law and that legal prohibition admits of no exceptions, with the death penalty bearing all the tell-tale indicia and characteristics of torture. In fact, an immutable characteristic of capital punishment is that it makes use of credible threats of death.
In short, the death penalty’s use—long known to intentionally inflict severe pain and suffering, and long administered in a highly arbitrary and discriminatory fashion in violation of fundamental human rights—must be outlawed and strictly forbidden to ensure that no one is subjected to the cruelty or torture of facing a capital prosecution, living under a sentence of death, or being put to death at the hands of the state. Justice Marshall—along with his colleague, Justice William Brennan—frequently wrote that the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments should be interpreted to bar the death penalty’s use in all circumstances. In examining all of the evidence, much of which is irrefutable, this Article concludes that Justice Marshall was correct and that the death penalty’s use must be declared to be unconstitutional and a per se violation of the U.S. Constitution. Death sentences and executions violate human dignity, fundamental human rights, and the equal protection of the laws—concepts at the very heart of American and international law, and ones that Justices Marshall and Brennan regularly cited in their judicial opinions. In the twenty-first century, death sentences and executions must be stigmatized for what they truly are: acts of extreme cruelty amounting to torture.
John D. Bessler,
The Gross Injustices of Capital Punishment: A Torturous Practice and Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Astute Appraisal of the Death Penalty’s Cruelty, Discriminatory Use, and Unconstitutionality,
29 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rts. & Soc. Just. 65
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