What exactly is cruel and unusual punishment? A child may think being required to eat their veggies at dinner is cruel and unusual when they would much prefer to eat potato chips and ice cream while an adult may think it is cruel and unusual to miss their morning cup of coffee. In the legal system, cruel and unusual punishment is a phrase listed in the Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. While the law is the law, the definition of the same has been under much debate. At one point torture was a permissible form of punishment and the death penalty applied to youth as well as adults. Both of these are no longer allowed by law. It was Chief Justice Earl Warren who said that as society evolves and changes so do community standards and tolerance which is why at one point in time torture was an acceptable punishment for certain offenses and the death penalty applied to people of all ages. As a society, we decided burning criminals alive and disemboweling them or executing youth under the age of 18 are cruel and unusual punishments. Atkins v Virginia (2002) made it illegal for states to execute anyone who is mentally retarded. The problem with this ruling like in many others is that the ruling did not describe what it meant to be mentally retarded and was left to each state to define. To date, Pennsylvania has yet to officially do so.
A bill sponsored by state Senator Mary Jo White was passed by the state Senate last year and sits at the House under review. The issue at hand: the state’s definition of mental retardation and who is allowed to define it. According to the bill, one is defined to be mentally retarded if they have a low IQ score, typically under 80, have a documented history of adjustment into society without reasonable accommodations and must be diagnosed by a medical professional as being intellectually disabled before reaching the age of 18. What has this bill tied up in House debate is whether or not it should be the trial judge or the jury who determines if Atkins v Virginia applies to the person being charged with a capital offense or not. There are two opposing points of positions. One states that intellectual ability should be confirmed before trial commencement as it takes time and money to try a capital case only to have it thrown out post-trial. Conversely, criminal justice agencies fear that if mental retardation is officially defined in PA, the floodgates will open wide for anyone to use this as the legal defense even if it is not applicable.
Unless the House is forced to bring it to a vote, the bill will sit indefinitely which is not uncommon in government. What has not been addressed and most likely will never be addressed is the feasibility of capital punishment in general. As a nation we have decided that there must be an ultimate punishment for the worst crimes typically murder. Naturally, the punishment should appropriately fit the crime and there are some crimes so heinous that even death is almost too nice. That being said, one must consider the fact that the majority of death penalty cases do not result in the criminal’s death, well, at least not at the hands of the state. There is a running joke that the most common cause of death on death row is old age. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 3,270 offenders on death row across the United States, 223 of those were in Pennsylvania. It is interesting to note that since 1995, only three people have been actually put to death the last one being Gary Heidnik in 1999. However, death warrants continue to be signed by PA governors, 355 of them since 1995 although in recent years those numbers have tapered down significantly having reached a peak in 1999 with 54 under then Gov. Tom Ridge. It costs $31,106/year to incarcerate an inmate in a state correctional institution in Pennsylvania regardless of their sentence. While there was no existing data found for what it costs to try a capital murder trial in Pennsylvania, other states are able to show that a death penalty case compared to a non-death penalty case causes taxpayer costs to skyrocket.
In light of this information, it seems that whether a judge or a jury determines if a defendant is or is not mentally retarded is the least of our worries. Considering the exuberant cost to the counties to try a capital murder case and the fact that no inmates have been executed in Pennsylvania in over ten years even though the Governors have been signing death warrants means that there is no immediate rush in the state legislature for this bill to move forward. It has been proposed in the past to put a moratorium on the death penalty in order to allow time for states to investigate procedures and to evaluate the need of the same. Another more viable option would be to abolish the death penalty completely. Like Canada or not, they do not use capital punishment in their criminal justice system. The maximum punishment there is life without parole. In Pennsylvania, life means just that- life. In other words, it is an indeterminate sentence. When you take your last breath, your sentence is up. If capital punishment were no longer a sentencing option in our country, there would be no more debate who can be executed or not nor would there be the high cost the states and counties must absorb in order to try the cases. As Chief Justice Earl Warren said in his opinion in Trop v Dulles that it is “evolving standards of decency” and in time those standards may determine that the death penalty has outlived its functionality.