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OUR EVOLVING SOCIAL THOUGHTS


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george-will-our-evolving-social-thoughtsHuman Events:

"Even if it could be demonstrated unequivocally that [public flogging and hand branding] were not cruel and unusual measures in 1791 ... I doubt whether any federal judge -- even among the many who consider themselves originalists -- would sustain them against an Eighth Amendment challenge."

-- Justice Antonin Scalia

WASHINGTON -- In the 1790s, a Tennessee man convicted of horse theft got off easy. Instead of being hanged, as horse thieves often were, he was sentenced to "stand in the pillory one hour, receive thirty-nine lashes upon his bareback well laid on, have his ears nailed to the pillory and cut off, and that he should be branded upon one cheek with the letter H and on the other with the letter T, in a plain and visible manner." Tennessee could not do that today because of what the Supreme Court has called "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

The Eighth Amendment, ratified in 1791, forbids "cruel and unusual punishments." Originalism holds that the Constitution's language should be construed to mean what the words meant at the time to those who wrote and ratified the Constitution. On Monday, a Supreme Court ruling about punishment vexed the four justices (John Roberts, Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito) most sympathetic to originalism, who dissented. The majority held that sentencing laws that mandate life imprisonment without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment.

In 1999, Kuntrell Jackson, 14, and two others, 14 and 15, robbed a video store in Blytheville, Ark. The 15-year-old fatally shot the store clerk. Jackson, who had a juvenile arrest record, was tried as an adult for aggravated robbery and felony capital murder. He was sentenced to life without a possibility of parole.

By 2002, Evan Miller, 14, a victim of serious domestic abuse, had tried to kill himself five times. He and another youth, after drinking and smoking marijuana with a 52-year-old man whose trailer was next door to the Millers' in Lawrence County, Ala., tried to rob him while he slept. He awoke, they beat him with a baseball bat, set fire to his trailer and he burned to death. Miller was sentenced to life without a possibility of parole.

Because of their offenses, both Jackson and Miller were automatically tried as adults. Both were sentenced under mandatory sentencing laws.Scissors-32x32.png

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