history

Crime and Punishment in the Days of the Bill of Rights

The Virginians who drafted the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights would most likely be surprised by Republican-appointed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s expansive interpretation of the Eighth Amendment as prohibiting the execution of Patrick Kennedy, who was convicted of the brutal rape of his eight-year-old step-daughter.

In the 18th century, a couple of hundred crimes were capital offenses in Virginia. These included rape, arson, theft, piracy, and murder. Typically, execution was swift and by hanging.

Reprieve meant branding with a hot iron on the fleshy part of the palm.

Even non-capital crimes yielded corporal punishment, e.g. whipping, or time in the pillory or stockade.

Imprisonment, life or otherwise, was unheard-of as a sentence. The public gaol was where suspects awaited trial.

If they were convicted, they returned to the gaol to await public hanging, three at a time, on a simple gallows.

As America’s Declaration of Independence asserts, the purpose of government is to secure the people’s rights. Stopping those who would violate the rights’ of others is its chief function.

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