Unusual and Cruel Punishment Cases in the United States

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Predominantly, a specific type of crime is assigned a certain punishment. However, in practice, there are many cases of incorrect sentencing. This may arise as a result of some legal subtleties or insufficient evidence. The constitutional issue that will be discussed in this study is unusual and cruel punishment for certain types of crime. This paper will consider several cases that relate to extraordinary and excessive penalty for an offense against the law. Moreover, it is going to include wrongfully established the death penalty committed by minors and mentally diseased people. The cases that will be mentioned are Atkins v. Virginia, Coker v. Georgia and Roper v. Simmons.

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Constitutional Issue

The death penalty as a preventive measure in modern society does not cope with its main tasks. Among them, the correction of criminal persons, compensation for damage caused, prevention of even more serious and dangerous crimes by people. Moreover, the pronouncement of this type of decision requires a detailed, thorough and painstaking investigation with the engagement of many qualified specialists. This should be done to exclude errors in the verdicts of the Supreme Court, which should be based on direct evidence of the guilt of the accused and the jury’s decision.

It is therefore vital to mention that some people cannot be held responsible for their actions due to insanity. This is a particularly difficult factor, which is of particular importance when determining the verdict by the court. Some consider the mitigation of punishment for such people as a step of mercy, which are conditioned by the norms of morality and humanism. It is proved that when proving complete insanity at the time of committing the crime, the criminals could not fully understand the actions and what consequences it could lead to.

One of the most significant documents of the Constitution of the United States that has a great impact in such cases is the Eighth Amendment. Stevenson, B.A., & Stinneford (n.d.) explain that “it prohibits the federal government from imposing unduly harsh penalties on criminal defendants, either as the price for obtaining pre-trial release or as punishment for crime after conviction” (para. 1). Relying on such order in connection to ruthless and unusual punishments, the Supreme Court of the USA cancelled the capital punishment in relation to certain crimes. Despite this, this type of sentence takes place in cases where the fact of guilt in murder is justified and proved.

Atkins v. Virginia

In this case, the sentence of a mentally unstable criminal is considered. Atkins was convicted of capital murder and related crimes and sentenced to death (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002). The man was judged for kidnapping, armed looting, and serious murder (Perlin et al., 2017). First-degree murder and civil rights offenses resulting in death provide for the death penalty under US Federal Law (“Federal Laws for the Death Penalty”, 2021). Moreover, the statement that such a heavy sentence could not be imposed on the defendant due to psychological ill health was rejected by the court. Because of this fact, this matter brought before a court is granted to be unrelenting and unconventional according the Eighth Amendment of America. In addition, it is worth noting that this case influenced the decision of the US Supreme Court in the case of Stanford v. Kentucky.


The imposition of punishment on people with psychological disabilities is a rather controversial issue. When considering and analyzing the health of a criminal, it is necessary to take into account that the fact that a mental disorder can be detected by specialized professionals, however, they can also confirm that it did not affect the patient’s perception of actions as carrying a special danger. Moreover, in the instance of a real finding of the problem, the individual might not fully understand what could happen after the commission of the crime or could not recognize the actual nature of the actions and direct them.

Deducing solutions for punishing people with psychological problems requires a detailed analysis. It is also important to note that in many countries such persons are exempt from punishment. As a sentence, forced treatment in a specialized medical institution is used. Deducing solutions for punishing people with psychological problems requires a detailed analysis. It is also important to note that in many countries such persons are exempt from punishment. As a sentence, forced treatment in a specialized medical institution is used. In addition, measures can be applied to mitigate the deduced sentence, if the presence of mental incapacity is confirmed. In such cases, the charge of first-degree murder can be changed to second-degree murder.

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In America, in various states, penalties can be defined differently. This can be either the isolation of a defective offender or the determination of a court term. At the same time, the criminal legislation of the states may not contain rules describing such cases. Most often, psychologically ill criminals are removed from society, and the length of this measure may be uncertain. That is why this case is considered unusual in relation to the legislation of the country.

The specialized literature emphasizes that a quarter of all convicted criminals for murder are people who were subsequently recognized as insane. The fact that these individuals received a reduced sentence or were completely deprived of prison sentence and sent to hospitals has a negative connotation. The study of such criminals is of particular importance, both from a psychological and social point of view, even if their sentence has been changed. This is necessary to build a sample of such a criminal and predict the actions of similar people in the future. A particular danger is the damage to innocent people and society, which can be caused due to insufficient research and lack of awareness of the population. The study of their cognitive and volitional tendencies and the influence and prevention of mental disorders will enable specialists to better learn what motivates insane people to commit such socially dangerous and destructive actions.

To do this, it is necessary to constantly collect information about the dynamics of the development of psychological disorders in the country. Moreover, in addition to the entire population, close attention should be paid to the study of the personalities of criminals who committed crimes while in an unhealthy mental state. Further, specific importance should be given to the processes of motivation and mechanisms of behavior of people involved in committing a crime. It is important because not all people with such deviations may have criminal tendencies and tendencies to commit such terrible actions as violence or murder. The study of the environment and external factors that could affect the formation of the psyche, such as family, friends, educational establishment, can give valuable information to specialists. All this knowledge will help to develop an effective and efficient policy to prevent criminal activity of mentally incapacitated persons, which can cause harm to the health and well-being of society.

Coker v. Georgia

This case presents an example of sentencing of death penalty for minors. In 1974, Coker, while serving a sentence for several crimes, such as murder, sexual assault, theft and assault, escaped from prison (“Coker v. Georgia”, n. d.). After that, a man broke into a house, attacked and abused a woman and stole a car. The state court sentenced Coker to capital punishment because of the actions committed by the criminal on the woman. However, it was then found that this decision was incorrect and not an appropriate punishment for this case. This was acquitted because sexual violence did not end in a fatal outcome.


One of the reasons opposite the establishment of the capital punishment in cases of rape is the futility of the measure taken. Many people believe that the fear of the end of life due to a committed crime can only in some cases become a motivation for refusing to commit terrible actions. Moreover, a large amount of researchers state that “the capital punishment should be classified under the rubric of torture and be strictly prohibited in American and international law” (Bessler, 2019, p. 1). Because of this, coming to such a verdict, the judicial system and the state as a whole may contribute to the development of preventive actions, but their degree may be too small. Any crime leaves a mark in the lives of people affected by it. However, some criminal acts cause irreparable psychological damage to the victims. Their investigation is connected with unpleasant, painful memories, with overcoming fear and shame, disclosing intimate details to a wide range of people.

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Rape is a serious crime, primarily against human rights. It leaves an unpleasant imprint in the memory of the victim, causing many physiological and psychological consequences. This kind of crime must be placed to the courtroom and seriously ruled out. In many instances, in the USA, privation of freedom is implemented as a settlement to this problem. If the case falls under the federal law of the country, the guilty person is sentenced to thirty years in prison. However, the length of detention may vary, depending on the legislation of an individual state.

According to numerous studies, violent acts of a sexual nature occupy a leading place in the field of crimes against the sexual freedom of people and the inviolability of the individual. Moreover, the investigation of sexual crimes and the determination of the measure of their punishment is of considerable complexity. This is determined by the fact that such a crime is committed, as a rule, without the presence of witnesses. Thus, victims, due to a sense of shame or fear of retribution from the person who committed the violence, often prefer not to report the act later or do it after a sufficiently long period of time, when it is already difficult to find traces of the crime and evidence for further use as evidence.

Despite the overall acceptance and established negative attitude to sexual violence as a serious or especially serious act, there is a critical distinctness in the established measures of its suppression. When passing a sentence, it is vital to consider the existence of direct intent realization of whether the criminal was aware that he was committing a sexual act against the will of the victim and whether he wants to act in this way. Criminals should understand that by resorting to violent actions, they deprive women of the opportunity to resist. Thus, sexual rape belongs to the sphere of particularly dangerous crimes against the freedom, rights and sexual inviolability of the individual. Moreover, this type of crime entails quite serious consequences. They can start from psychological injuries, health problems, to more global social and legal problems of society.

Roper v. Simmons

The case of Roper v. Simmons represents an instance of excessive punishment. It is essential to emphasize that in the moment of the criminal activity, the accused has not yet reached the full legal age. This case cannot be considered as an easy one, since the decision took the court several years. The court rejected a series of appeals and in 2002 it was decided to stop Simmons’ punishment. The Missouri court made the decision based on the evidence that the majority of the American population believes that judicial execution cannot be applied to minors. This was also influenced by the decision about the case of Atkins v. Virginia, which concerned the execution of the mentally retarded. Moreover, the laws adopted since 1989 that restricted the scope of the death penalty were studied and adopted as a basis (“Roper v. Simmons”, n. d.). Thus, it was found that this punishment does not comply with the constitution.


The decisions to impose a certain degree of punishment or release a convict from criminal responsibility are represented by two most important postulates of criminal law. This is because the implementation of the security of people’s rights and liberty depends on them. Moreover, they also influence the protection of the interests of society and the state from criminal actions. This is done by assigning a fair and correct penalty for an illegal act. Thus, the punishment for a crime committed by a minor in the type of execution of a condemned person is incorrect and requires finding alternative ways. Such a sentence for the juveniles objects to the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution on harsh and extraordinary sentence. The imposition of punishment in this case, as in the previous one, is characterized by special complexity. This is because there are no laws regulating this system, types and order of penalties in the legislation.

As a decision on punishment for teenagers who have not reached the age of majority, imprisonment for short terms can act. It should be served in special prisons for the juveniles. However, it is worth noting that in some states of America, in which the regulation of criminal liability and the establishment of age limits are established in different ways. At the same time, either a certain rule about the inability to commit a crime is taken into account, or the age of non-responsibility for the committed act is specially determined. Thus, state statutes of Louisiana and Colorado established the minimum limit for which a person can be brought for a crime as ten years. Moreover, when judging such crimes, it is important to take into account the psychological characteristics of young people. This is because at this age they cannot fully account for the doings and are not aware of the result that can be entailed. That is why it is not considered true and fair to judge young priests as well as adults.

The problems associated with the imposition of punishment for particularly serious crimes to adolescents are quite acute. However, the special system of legislation for minors still does not have proper development and accounting. Juvenile delinquency has a special significance in the sphere of social life, since the central part in the process are people who have not reached sufficient maturity and are not able to correctly assess their actions due to their age. In relation to juvenile delinquents, society allows the possibility of less severe and unjustified punishment, which can be put forward by the court. Taking into account age, psychological immaturity, increased degree of suggestibility, exposure to other people’s influence, distorted perception of such concepts as good and evil are vital to consider. Moreover, part of the guilt of parents and guardians from their environment in engaging in harmful behavior for society and committing crimes, the law considers the application of a milder punishment than in relation to adult criminals.

The fact that a criminal does not reach the age of eighteen is not a reason for exemption from criminal liability. It should be noted that the punishment can be applied only to young people who, at the time of committing a criminal act, reached the age of criminal responsibility, were sane and found guilty of committing a crime by a court. In addition, the Supreme Court should take into account that the deprivation and restrictions of rights and freedoms caused by serving a special measure of coercion against minors are not only punitive, but also educational in nature.

Weems v. United States

Weems v. United States is an instance of vicious and odd punishment. Weems was a disbursement officer for the Coast Guard and Transportation Bureau. In the Philippines, a man was accused of forging an official document in order to deceive the country’s government. As a sentence, the court imposed fifteen years in prison and a fine of four thousand pesos (“Weems v. United States”, 1910). In turn, the accused filed an objection to the presented sentence, but the court did not accept it. Then, Weems sent an application to the Supreme Court of the USA. In it, the man showed the illegality of the charges of the Philippine court and justified the rationality of canceling the decision. The American court emphasized that the penalty in the form of placing in forcible detention for this long period contradicts the eighth amendment of the America’s constitution.


One of the reasons why the deduced execution is thought to be illegal was that there was no confirmation that the accused was present in court during the hearing. This also played in favor of canceling the punishment and considering the case as incorrect. Moreover, specialists like Call (2019) emphasizes that “the severity of a punishment be proportional to the severity of the crime” (p. 1). This is true, since the punishment for a particularly serious crime should not be on the same level as such offenses as theft or imitation of real documents.

Although, as mentioned earlier, the legislation of different states may have some differences and peculiarities, the maximum penalty for forgery of documents and fraud can reach five years in a strict regime colony. For lighter cases, the penalty is applied as a fine. However, the court’s decision may also be influenced by such factors as, for example, the individual features of the accused and the situation of the example under consideration. Besides, the assessment of the degree of influence of the committed act on the occurrence of public danger is of particular importance. Nevertheless, in this case, the danger to society was minimal, which could not in any way affect the issuance of such a serious reprimand.

Jones v. Mississippi

This is the last case presented as the instance of crime under the Eight Amendment. The court considered the case of a minor Brett Jones, who killed his grandfather in the aftermath of an argument. The accused claimed that the actions committed by him were taken as self-defense. The court of the Li region sentenced the young man to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (Lampe, 2021). In dangerous and uncontrolled situations that pose a threat to life, it is difficult for individuals to give a full account of the actions they are taking. Despite the fact that crimes due to self-defense are separate cases, they still cannot remain unpunished. This example may raise doubts due to the fact that a young person could justifiably use a defense that caused death, provided that the possibility that another person had intentions to cause serious bodily harm or end the conflict with a fatal outcome. Due to the fact that an elderly man was killed, there is no exact evidence of intentions, only the words of the accused.


Due to the instability of the psyche of young people, it should be noted that at the time of protection from an attack, they always have the opportunity to assess the actions of the abuser. Thus, at such a moment, a person cannot adequately assess the significance of an attack due to the fact that defense and protection of life are considered the most important. In accordance with American law, individuals can take certain steps to protect themselves from physical harm only if they have been unlawfully attacked by another and if for protection, in the absence of the possibility of resorting to the law.

The age at which law enforcement agencies can bring a person to criminal responsibility should be established taking into account the psychological characteristics of people. Thus, it should be established taking into account the fact that the criminal must be clearly aware of the negative consequences and danger to others that can be provoked by criminal actions. It is unacceptable to apply the same penalties for such people and people who, due to their age, are not able to understand all the consequences and be responsible for what has been done.

When making a decision on the severity of punishment, it is necessary to conduct a comprehensive psychiatric examination of a juvenile offender. It should establish whether a person was aware of his actions and whether he could soberly direct them. Criminal liability for such criminals can be carried out not only in the form of a prison term, but also in other ways. Therefore, an adult can be identified to monitor a minor criminal, who will also provide a report for the above-authorized representatives. Moreover, control should be carried out by social services, which may include a weekly and then monthly visit by a specialist to a minor, and a visit by a young criminal to a special institution. For more severe cases, it is possible to place a minor in a special institution and assign a fine and compensation.

Thus, when deciding what sentence a minor should serve, the court should not immediately resort to such an alternative as imprisonment. This applies even to cases where the nature of the case and the type of offense are substantial justifications. Instead of prison, the court has the opportunity to send a teenage criminal to a special institution and subject him to work with specialists, which will entail a significant preventive nature of the occurrence of such cases.

Social Policy Implications

Such a cruel and sometimes incorrect punishment as the death penalty is of particular importance in the field of criminal legislation. It is an extreme and exceptional measure of restraint. Capital punishment does not set itself the main goal of correcting the criminal, unlike other types of punishment. This is presented as a negative and unfavorable social policy implication. This is because the main task of this punitive measure is retribution for what was done. Such a way out of the situation does not carry a preventive subtext, thereby leaving such cases without meaning.

The state’s decision on the reasonableness of the exercise of the capital punishment as a punishment has an ambiguous character on account of that there is no clear and reasonable opinion of people about it in modern society. The main argument of people who oppose this type of sentence is that when making this decision in the future, there may be a possibility of committing a judicial error. This can happen in cases of insufficient evidence, unqualified investigation, or due to the lack of a sufficient number of witnesses and alleged defendants. Thus, there is an assumption of the death of an innocent person. Moreover, there is an opinion that the death penalty generates even more violence in society, due to its publicity.

People who advocate capital punishment as an effective and reasonable way to solve problems believe that it has a special preventive effect. They argue that this can prevent the commission of such terrible crimes as violence or murder by the fact that potential criminals will abandon their plans after seeing their consequences. Thus, the state and the legislature can save the lives of potential victims. In other words, by applying the death penalty, the country shows the population that their lives are the highest value for them and the process of restoring violated social justice is underway.


The appointment of a reasonable sentence is a fundamental part of the testing of criminal legislation and the implementation of justice. However, the encouraging and laxative norms of this sphere of society’s life play the role of a counterweight to repressive actions. They are based on the main universal principles of humanism and justice. Thus, they require a multi-stage and multifunctional approach to the imposition of punishment for persons accused of committing a particular crime. A complex approach involving the involvement of many specialists and the implementation of many stages is necessary because while the process of hearing and investigation of the case, situations may arise that do not give an unambiguous answer about whether an individual who performed a severe act should be punished and serve it completely. In addition, such repetitive steps, instead of preventive strategies, might not be useful to fully and reasonably control such a negative social phenomenon as crime. Moreover, it will not help to reduce the level of crimes committed and ensure their investigation and prevention.


Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304. (2002). Justia US Supreme Court.

Bessler, J. D. (2019). Torture and trauma: Why the death penalty is wrong and should be strictly prohibited by American and international law. Washburn LJ, 58.

Call, C. (2019). Death penalty for sex offenders. The Encyclopedia of Women and Crime, 1-2.

Coker v. Georgia. (n.d.). Oyez.

Federal Laws Providing for the Death Penalty. (2021). Death Penalty Information Center.

Lampe, J. (2021). Congressional research service, Jones v. Mississippi, 18-1259. Congressional Research Service.

Perlin, M. L., Cucolo, H. E., & Lynch, A. (2017). Mental disability law: Cases and materials. Carolina Academic Press.

Roper v. Simmons. (n.d.). Oyez.

Stevenson, B.A., & Stinneford, L.F. (n.d.). The eighth amendment. Interactive Constitution.

Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349. (1910). Justia US Supreme Court.

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