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Cruel and Unusual
The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment
John D. Bessler

2012 • 464 pp. 9 illus. 6 1/8 x 9 1/4"
Constitutional Law / Criminology / American Government / Capital Punishment

$35.00 Paperback, 978-1-55553-825-5
$45.00 Hardcover, 978-1-55553-716-6

$24.99 Ebook, 978-1-55553-717-3

Check your ebook retailer or local library for ebook availability.

“E]xcellent history. . . . So how does a society that shed many of its old cruelties — slavery, floggings, lynchings, executions of the criminally insane — still cling to the ultimate punishment? This... [continued in Reviews below]”—Baltimore Sun

This indispensable history of the Eighth Amendment and the founders’ views of capital punishment is also a passionate call for the abolition of the death penalty based on the notion of cruel and unusual punishment

The conventional wisdom is that the founders were avid death penalty supporters. In this fascinating and insightful examination of America’s Eighth Amendment, law professor John D. Bessler explodes this myth and shows the founders’ conflicting and ambivalent views on capital punishment. Cruel and Unusual takes the reader back in time to show how the indiscriminate use of executions gave way to a more enlightened approach—one that has been evolving ever since. While shedding important new light on the U.S. Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishments” clause, Bessler explores the influence of Cesare Beccaria’s essay, On Crimes and Punishments, on the Founders’ views, and the transformative properties of the Fourteenth Amendment, which made the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. After critiquing the U.S. Supreme Court’s existing case law, this essential volume argues that America’s death penalty—a vestige of a bygone era in which ear cropping and other gruesome corporal punishments were thought acceptable—should be declared unconstitutional.

Electronic notes referenced in the book are available here (PDF format, 700kb).

Click here for TABLE OF CONTENTS

Reviews / Endorsements

"[E]xcellent history. . . . So how does a society that shed many of its old cruelties — slavery, floggings, lynchings, executions of the criminally insane — still cling to the ultimate punishment? This is what Mr. Bessler's book seeks to answer, and in so doing, it argues persuasively that the death penalty, infested with randomness and bias, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments."—Baltimore Sun

“Bessler offers a thought-provoking examination of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” in the ongoing debate over the constitutionality of capital punishment. . . . As a starting point for reasoned discourse, this is a remarkably thorough, compelling achievement. . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

Cruel and Unusual provides a wealth of interesting information.” —Journal of American History

“Bessler sees three paths to abolition: legislative repeal, judicial abolition, and disuse, and maintains that all three are presently at work, and that it is just a matter of time before the United States decides, like Justice Harry Blackmun did prior to his retire- ment from the Supreme Court, that it “shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”—Political Science Quarterly

“A searing indictment of capital punishment, this pioneering history of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is destined to reframe America’s death penalty debate. As a definitive account of the Eighth Amendment’s origins and the Founding Fathers’ own ambivalent views on executions, it will forever change our perceptions of cruelty and penal reform in the founding era. This book, which exposes the brutality of state-sanctioned killing, is a must-read.”—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions

JOHN D. BESSLER is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Wed, 17 Oct 2018 11:36:29 -0500