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Criminal Trials & the Eighth Amendment

Info: 3418 words (14 pages) Law Essay
Published: 20th Nov 2020

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Criminal Trials & the Eighth Amendment 


The following essay will detail the criminal trial and its aftermath with the focus on protecting the rights of those accused of crimes: Booth v. Maryland. The procedures of the trial and how these may infringe on our human rights. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution protects a defendant from cruel and unusual punishment and may exclude a jury from considering a victim impact statement. Victim  Impact  Statements (VIS) are statements read by a victim’s family, or crime victims at the sentencing phase of criminal trials.  How challenges faced are stemmed from the VIS conflicting with the view of the Eighth Amendment regarding the proportionality that considers the punishment must be comparative to the crime. The United States Supreme Court has considered many of these in recent years dealing with the VIS at the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings.

Keywords:  Eighth Amendment, Criminal, Trial, John Booth, Booth v. Maryland, Constitution, cruel and unusual, punishment, prohibit, jury, victim impact statement

Criminal Trials & the Eighth Amendment 

The basic rights that are guaranteed during a trial is nothing new.  Our forefathers have established the bill of rights so that it is recognized by all as a basic human right.  When determining how our rights may be infringed upon in courtroom proceedings or while viewing, the bill of rights is now the challenge.  It is believed that many are directly affected in the criminal justice system as it is growing with new offences and the growing numbers being jailed. The global war on terror is nothing new and with sometimes flawed. The political shifting of the criminal justice systems makes us more secure and has had the opposite effect. The sixth amendment guarantees the right to an impartial jury and prospective jurors must not be prejudiced in any way (Carp, Manning, Holmes, & Stidham, 2020).

The Courts

Society is faced by a problem of accomplishing social control that can protect lives and properties as well as maintaining a level of order in society. Law is formed as an official method of social control. This is done by a set of rules that are approved and implemented by the government in a means to regulate and protect society. Some forms of behavior are illegal, and penalties are enforced to those that engaging in this restricted conduct. The branch of law illegalizing those conducts is referred to as criminal law.

In our democratic society, an individual is not convicted of a crime without committing an offence that is against the law in our due process. Criminal law provides practical and routine rules that are used to oversee the criminal justice system’s procedures. These rules prohibit certain behaviors and define crime as well as forming penalties and their limitation. The use of procedural rules controls the enforcement of the law, determines the guilt, and recommend the punishment to be imposed to the guilty party.

A Judge leads the law in courtroom proceedings. Pertaining to the criminal trial process, they are the ones who provide a sort of balance to an extent, for victim rights, for the offenders, and for society. The judge is called on to rule on many motions of the prosecutor and of the defense attorney, in regards to the types of evidence that may be presented and the kinds of questions that may be asked (Carp, Manning, Holmes, & Stidham, R, 2020). Judges that can apply the law freely and fairly, were essential when comes to the rule of law (“Judicial Independence,” n.d.). Our judicial system uses items such as evidence and witnesses in a methodical way to charge discussions among the jury. This helps to maintain an effective way of balancing rights, because issues such as false witness statements safeguard of our amendment rights and added pressure to agree with charges filed can cause issues of unfairness with juries and those being accused of a crime.

Evidence used in the court is bound by the Federal Rules of Evidence and must be lawfully obtained by the police to apply to the proceedings in United States courts (“Rule 101,” n.d.). The admittance of evidence and use of witnesses or their statements are used to balance the victims’ rights.  However, this can be an ineffective way of balancing any rights of the offenders.  Protecting the victims’ rights by using and collecting of evidence and/or witness statements, has been progression.  It is appropriate if it does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The protection of the people from any unlawful search or seizure falls under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This means that the police cannot search you or your property without a warrant or probable cause.

The Process of a Trial

A criminal trial is only produced and scheduled when the accused enters by a plea of not guilty. The trial is a formal process that determines whether the accused is innocent or guilty and delivers the verdict and punishment to the accused if found guilty. Criminal trial proceedings are highly formal and are governed by procedure and evidence rules comprising of the following steps. First, there will be an investigation, and this is conducted in which search, seizure, and arrests are made. Second, the formal charging process is done, and then during arraignment this is where a plea of guilty or not guilty is entered by the accused. If the individual enters a plea of not guilty, the prosecution then plans the trial and a date is scheduled. If the end outcome results in the judge or jury finding the defendant guilty, known as a conviction, or not guilty; known as an acquittal. If the accused is convicted the procedure, then moves to the step of sentencing. When an individual is being sentenced this also includes a form of punishment. When the individual is sentenced, it may also lead to an appeal process of the case if the accused requires revision of the trial.

An important part for the victims or the victim’s family stems from a Victim Impact Statement (VIS). They are statements read by, or on behalf of, the victims or family members effected by the crime at the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings. After the defendant has been found guilty by the judge or jury, the victim or family is offered the chance to make a statement to the court concerning the impact of the crime on the victim and their family. These statements are presented to urge the judge to consider the max or sometimes leniency of the penalty upon the defendant. The statements are normally filled with emotion, and the defendant is not able to refute any of the statements.

Victim Impact Statements

A victim of a violent crime can be perceived as a vulnerable and wounded member of our society.  In all 50 states and in federal cases, crime victims are allowed the right to give a victim impact statement at the time of sentencing (Carp, Manning, Holmes, & Stidham, 2020). The victim impact statement is a way for these victims to have a chance to be heard. It may be a form of closure so that the victim or the victim’s family may be able to move on with their life after such tragedy. Many believe that with allowing the victims statement to be heard or after someone has been convicted of a crime that caused their loss, the VIS is believed to not have any sway to the judge or jury as the verdict has already been decided (Stern, 2016). The defendant may appeal against a VIS, with the notation that a plausible constitutional objection may have cause cruel and unusual punishment.

Sometimes conflict will arise from the VIS and some believe that the punishment may be increased where victims or family members become overly expressive, or more dramatic to make the VIS stronger (Stern, 2016). When a victim or family member reads the statement, this can amplify the severity of the statement, then if it was read by a court employee and may form a stronger impact on the sentencing authority than of the real severity of the crime. This has caused some to believe that the victim impact statements cause an un-proportionality and defense attorneys will argue against the VIS being read (Stern, 2016). This has become a high-profile area. It discusses victim impact statements in contrast with cruel and unusual punishment of the eighth amendment. Three well-known cases are Maryland v. Booth, South Carolina v. Gathers, and Tennessee v. Payne.

The courtroom proceeding is designed to balance rewards for the victims and punishment to those accused of wrongdoing. The checks and balances side of a courtroom are designed to give neither party too much power in a court of law with the judge or jury being the objective party. It would be agreed by many that a bill that protects a victim and punishes the accused fairly would pass in society. While we have seen in past attempts to reduce bail and jail time for non-violent offences having an increase in crime when there is no deterrence for those that commit crimes. Therefore, when it comes to a victim’s impact statement it can be just like a well-placed statement on the evening news (Stern, 2016). For many it would mean votes in their favor.

Booth v. Maryland

The case of Maryland v. Booth happened in 1983. Those involved were a married couple, Irvin Bronstein, age 78, and his wife Rose, age 75. The crime took place in their West Baltimore home, where they were robbed and murdered. The accused murderers were, John Booth and Willie Reid (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.). They entered the victims' residence to steal money so they could feed their addition and buy heroin. Booth was a neighbor of the Bronstein’s who lived a couple houses down. He knew that the elderly couple would be able to identify him, therefore the couple were bound and gagged. Both Booth and Reid stabbed them repeatedly with a kitchen knife (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.).  It was not until a few days later that the Bronstein’s son discovered their bodies.

During the trial, Booth was found guilty on multiple accounts.  Those include, two counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit a robbery, and two counts of robbery. It was requested of the prosecution for the death penalty (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.).  Booth elected to have his sentence decided by a jury instead of the judge. When the time for sentencing came, the State Division of Parole and Probation (DPP) was required to present a report that described John Booth's background, education, employment history, and his criminal record. It was a Maryland statute to produce a presentence report in all felony cases and it must include a victim impact statement (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.). In the VIS, the Bronstein’s family gave opinions and characterizations of the crimes, along with their opinions directly about Booth and Reid. In one part of the VIS, as stated by the Bronstein’s daughter: "I don't feel that the people who did this could ever be rehabilitated, and I don't want them to be able to do this again" (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.).

The jury upon deliberation sentenced Booth to death for the murder of Irvin Bronstein and to life imprisonment for the murder of Rose Bronstein. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the sentences. The court then rejected Booth's claim that the victim impact statement added subjective factors to the sentencing ruling (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.). The court noted that it had considered this argument in Lodowski v. State and determined that a VIS provides an important concern by informing the accused of the harm that was caused by their crime.

Upon further review of Booth’s case, the Court of Appeals determined the VIS was straightforward and a factual explanation of the impacts of the murders on the victim’s family.  They further explained that the death sentence was not imposed under the consideration of prejudice, passion, or other indiscriminate reasons. The petitioner appealed again, and it went up to the United States (U.S.) Supreme Court (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.).

In 1987, the Supreme Court case of Booth v. Maryland made a final ruling regarding the use of the victim impact statement. It was argued that in capital cases when the VIS is read by the victim(s) in court to the jury, it often violates the Eighth Amendment. The argument led by the Chief Attorney for the petition, was the decision of the jury for death penalty should only be based on two criteria.   The Chief Attorney felt they should only consider the defendants background and the circumstances of the crime (Booth v. Maryland, n.d.).

Later in Payne v. Tennessee, the court overturned part of that decision. The court allowed the VIS as it pertained to the overall emotional impact the crime had on the family (Stern, 2016).  In Gathers v. South Carolina, Demetrius Gathers was convicted of murder.  He was then sentenced to death for the death Richard Haynes.  Per charging papers, Gathers stabbed Haynes with a knife. The Supreme Court of South Carolina based decision off the prosecutor's remarks.  The prosecutor suggested the death sentence was needed, as the victim was considered a religious man and also a registered voter (South Carolina v. Gathers, n.d.).  The ruling in Booth v. Maryland was less considerate as it did not allow the victim’s family members to convey opinions about the crime, the accused, and the suitable punishment.

The Supreme Court explained that victim impact statements in capital cases prohibit opinions pertaining to the defendant and any recommendations of the form of punishment. In the case of Payne, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decided that Payne indirectly overturned this ban and allowed the victims’ family to tell the jury that the defendant should be sentenced to death. The appellate court declared in a per curium decision that Payne never overruled the ban regarding the victim sentencing recommendations. The ruling stands until the court states otherwise.

In the cases described above, and considering the outcomes of Booth and Payne, victim impact statements were viewed negatively as they were believed to add emotion and drama into the sentencing process. This then allowed the sentence to maybe (we do not know the jury’s exact emotions to the VIS) be swayed by emotion, rather than reason or out of proportion to the crime committed. This produced the cruel and unusual inconsistencies when it came to the sentencing of the guilty parties. In today’s settings, these statements are a normally seen occurrence. Especially in sexual assault cases, murders, sexual offenders, driving under the influence deaths, along with other cases, as some believe that the courts are too lenient on the accused. The constitutional dilemmas with these victim impact statements appear to have taken a back seat to the tremendous wish for punishment.

The Eighth Amendment - Cruel and Unusual

The bill of rights also known as the first Ten Commandments to the constitution, was ratified in 1781. The intent of the Bill of Rights not only limits and acts as a type of constraint towards the power of the government but also helps the citizens by guaranteeing their rights and decreases the amount of federal authority. The Bill of Rights assured citizens that their rights would not be violated, and this guaranteed that the government would not repress the citizens and protect them against any oppression.

The eighth amendment of the constitution protects against excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments. The cruel and unusual punishment clause implies, that any punishment that is inhumane and not proportionate to the crime committed will not be imposed and viewed as illegal. The eighth amendment further defines that anything degrading to human dignity, such as torture or something irrational, is regarded as a restricted punishment. As we have seen with Payne, Booth, and Gathers, the eighth amendment has brought up controversy over what can be considered unconstitutional and inhumane. The definition of cruel and unusual punishment can be understood in different ways but our interpretation of it is far different from those of that time when ratified.

The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is the most important and controversial part of the Eighth Amendment.  The clause states that cruel and unusual punishment such as torture or lingering death, cannot be inflicted on anyone as a form of execution. It is acceptable under the Eighth Amendment to execute a convict by means of hanging, shooting, electrocution, and lethal gas. There is still confusion about what is constitutes as cruel and unusual punishment. There have been several court cases of interest that have challenged and redefined this concept as detailed in Booth, Gathers, and Payne.

In Booth, Gathers, and Payne, the defendants had nothing to miss by bringing their disputes all the way to the Supreme Court. They all were sentenced to death after the reading of the victim impact statement. The possibility of a successful challenge is little, but a defendant will have more to gain by appealing. The risks associated with challenging the victim impact statement would be worth only if the defendant were sentenced to death or to life without parole. The use of a victim impact statement is not determinative whether it truly violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

The Payne v. Tennessee court case shifted the focus of the victim impact statement from the Eighth Amendment to the Fourteenth. It went from cruel and unusual to a procedural due process problem. The due process context examined the evidence-based issues that were raised by the victim impact statement.

In the end, when the Court reversed Booth and Gathers, it left the interpretation of concern for the issue at hand, open and susceptible to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clauses. The current constitutional status of the victim impact statement is  that  the  proportionality doctrine does not erect a per se bar to the admissibility of the victim impact statements at sentencing trials, but many are now looking at the Fourteenth Amendment for some type of relief.

The argument heard today is that the only ones protected by our justice system are criminals, and there is little-to-no protection for the victims. This is deemed true and constitutionally necessary.  The individual accused has rights that must be protected.  The defendant’s right to commit a crime is not protected by the Constitution.  The Constitution is protecting the defendant’s rights for being tried for a crime that they committed.


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