• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court overturned a sentence as cruel and unusual for the first time, interpreting the term as referring to punishments that were unnecessarily cruel and grossly excessive for the crime.

Paul Weems, a coast guard officer in the Philippines, was found guilty of falsifying the public record and sentenced to fifteen years at cadena, a punishment of Spanish origin that required the prisoner to serve the entire term at hard labor bound by heavy chains around his wrists and ankles. Although the sentence was given under Philippine law, the Philippine Bill of Rights contained a provision almost identical to the Eighth Amendment. By a 4-2 margin, the Supreme Court ordered Weems released. Writing for the majority, Justice Joseph McKennaMcKenna, Joseph[MacKenna, Joseph];Weems v. United States[Weems v. United States] recognized that the concept of cruelty changed over time and that a punishment for a particular crime was cruel when disproportionately harsh in comparison with those levied for more serious crimes.Cruel and unusual punishment;Weems v. United States[Weems v. United States]

Writing for the majority in Weems, Justice Joseph McKenna recognized that notions of "cruelty" change over time.

(Library of Congress)

Cruel and unusual punishment

Eighth Amendment

Trop v. Dulles

Categories: History