The Eighth Amendment and the Death Penalty

If the people are protected against cruel and unusual punishments, where does the death penalty come in?

Eighth Amendment

Photo by: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” No one convicted of a crime should face punishments that are considered severe or unfair. Being sentenced to death seems to be the grimmest and harshest sentence possible though, so why is it permissible under the protection of the Eighth Amendment?

Death penalty

In the early 1970’s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Within a few short years however, during the case of Gregg V. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled by a wide majority that the death penalty under new statutes were no longer unconstitutional. Under the new guidelines, the trials of someone facing the death penalty must be a two part, with the first determining guilt or innocence and if found guilty, the second step to decide prison or death.

Is Utah pro-death penalty?

Photo by: Humphrey King

The state of Utah wasted no time in welcoming the death penalty back. In fact, Utah was one of the first states to begin perform an execution after the nationwide overhaul of capital punishment. Utah is also the only state to still have the questionable firing squad as an option of carrying out the death penalty when unable to “obtain the substance or substances necessary to conduct an execution by lethal intravenous injection” according to Utah Code 77-18-5.5. Many death penalty activists in Utah are currently fighting to cease the death penalty in Utah on the next legislative session. While many claim it is truly unconstitutional to take the life of another person under law, others admit the death penalty with the cost of the continuous appeals is just too expensive to support.

Capital felonies

Until Utah lawmakers decide to abolish the death penalty, Utah Code 76-3-206 states: “A person who has pled guilty to or been convicted of a capital felony [such as murder] shall be sentenced in accordance with this section [and if the person] was 18 years of age or older at the time the offense was committed, the sentence shall be:

(i) An indeterminate prison term of not less than 25 years and that may be for life; or
(ii) On or after April 27, 1992, life in prison without parole”;
(iii) [or the ultimate punishment,]  Death”.

Pleading Guilty with a Mental Illness

When a person is suffering from a mental illness, it can drastically reduce their ability to determine right from wrong, leading some to commit offenses they may have not been predisposed to commit had they been of sound mind. When this occurs, they may think it is best to plead guilty with a mental illness. Since pleading guilty with a mental illness is still pleading guilty, this is something that is best discussed with a qualified attorney prior to the initial appearance or preliminary hearing.

Prevalence of mental illness nationwide

Photo by: A Health Blog

Mental illnesses are experiences by millions throughout the nation. It is estimated that roughly 1 in 5 adults, or more than 40 million Americans suffer from a mental illness each year. Nearly 10 million of those suffer from severe, and often debilitating cases of mental illness. Mental illness can affect an individuals ability to hold down a job, maintain healthy relationships, and overall dramatically reduce the quality of life for the sufferer. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia can decrease a person’s ability to understand the gravity of situations and many believe they could lead a person to exhibit criminal behavior outside their control.

Pleading guilty with a mental illness at the time of the offense

Some individuals may realize that they have committed a serious offense, yet felt they were not in a healthy state of mind when the event occurred. If the evidence is stacked against them, they may choose to claim guilty with a mental illness at the time of the offense. According to Utah Code 76-2-305, “it is a defense to a prosecution under any statute or ordinance that the defendant, as a result of mental illness, lacked the mental state required as an element of the offense charged. “This section defines mental illness as “a mental disease or defect that substantially impairs a person’s mental, emotional, or behavioral functioning. A mental defect may be a congenital condition, the result of injury, or a residual effect of a physical or mental disease and includes, but is not limited to, intellectual disability.”

Sentencing with or without treatment

Photo by: Alachua County

When someone is given a verdict of guilty with a mental illness, according to Utah Code 77—16a-104, a hearing will then be conducted to “determine the defendant’s present mental state”. If the person is found to still be suffering from a mental illness, the court would “impose any sentence that could be imposed under law upon a defendant who does not have a mental illness and who is convicted of the same offense and commit the defendant to the department.” The defendant would then be admitted to the Utah State Hospital. Once treatment is completed, the defendant would then be transferred to the UDC (Utah Department of Corrections) to complete their sentencing. Being found guilty with a mental illness it is not a get out of jail free card. It is more of a temporary adjustment as to where the defendant will be serving their sentence.

Still a guilty plea

Utah Code 77-16a-103 gives a note of caution to those pleading guilty with a mental illness, “If the defendant is later found not to have a current mental illness, that plea remains a valid plea of guilty with a mental illness at the time of the offense, and the defendant shall be sentenced as any other offender.” Pleading guilty is still considered admitting fault. This is not something that should be done without proper legal counsel. There are other options available such as pleading guilty to a lesser offense or pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. For anyone facing criminal charges, it is best to speak to a criminal defense attorney to discuss the options available to those suffering from a mental illness.

Armed Utah Resident Threatens Use of Deadly Force to Stop Men Fleeing Police

An armed southern Utah resident threatened use of deadly force to stop two men from fleeing police.

Armed Utah resident

Photo by: Adam Bailey

A resident in the small town of Leeds, Utah which is located 16 miles north of St. George heard a large noise on his property and went to investigate. The resident discovered two men had crashed into his fence while fleeing from police. The Leeds homeowner who was armed with a personal firearm threatened use of deadly force to keep the men detained by gunpoint until a law enforcement officer was able to take them under arrest.

Helpful, but was it justified?

The homeowner was likely alarmed by the pair of men crashing into his fence, however was he justified brandishing a firearm to keep the men from fleeing again? Fortunately for all parties involved, the pair fleeing police did not attempt to continue running or threaten the homeowner in any way. Authorities arrived shortly after and the two were booked into Purgatory Correctional Facility on a variety of misdemeanor and felony charges. Had the men tried to leave however, would the homeowner have been justified to use deadly force? Is leaving the scene a reason to defend oneself?

Threatening force in defense of person

Utah Code 76-2-402 states: “A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that force or a threat of force is necessary to defend the person or a third person against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force.” Someone crashing into a fence may be startling at first, however unless more aggressive actions were taken, it likely would not necessitate threatening use of using deadly force against the other party for them merely attempting leaving the scene. Luckily in this case, deadly force was not used and the home owner was seen as an outstanding citizen for remaining calm while helping police.

Utah laws regarding firearms

Utah residents are encouraged to study Utah laws regarding firearms, so they will know for certain:

• where they are allowed to carry firearms,
• when they are allowed to brandish a weapon; and
• When they are justified in using deadly force.

Anyone facing charges for improper use of a firearm should seek legal counsel.