In re Kemmler

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In In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1889), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of the electric chair for capital punishment against a claim that it violates the Eighth Amendment.

This case arose from the first execution by electrocution in New York. The defendant argued that his execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and that the Eighth Amendment should be incorporated against the States. Id. at 447-448. (The Court ultimately rejected the incorporation argument. Id. at 449.)

The Court noted that under the Eighth Amendment, "[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death." Id. at 447. The Court reasoned that "the punishment of death is not cruel, within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution"; instead, the word "cruel" "implies ... something inhuman and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life." Id. The Court also noted that New York had a counterpart to the Eighth Amendment in its state constitution, and observed that the state courts had held that execution by electrocution would not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under that provision, on the grounds that "th[e] act [adopting electrocution] was passed in the effort to devise a more humane method of reaching the result" and that "upon the evidence the legislature had attained ... the object [it] had in view in [the act's] passage." Id. The Court reasoned that, if it were to treat the state courts' holding as "involving an adjudication that the statute was not repugnant to the Federal Constitution," that holding would be "plainly right." Id.