Saturday, June 28, 2008

When is the Length of a Criminal Sentence Considered Cruel & Unusual Punishment?

By Syreeta L. McNeal, CPA, JD

Recently, blogger, Chiderah Aalisa, posted an article regarding the sentencing of Corey Devon Green to 297 years in prison for charges of attempted murder, kidnapping and theft of a vehicle in Dotham, Alabama. Many in the black community are outraged and can’t understand how Corey Green can be sentenced to 297 years in prison and this length of sentence not be considered “cruel and unusual” punishment. Well, this article is aimed to give information to the black community concerning the status of the law as it relates to the following issue: when is the length of a criminal sentence considered cruel and unusual punishment? To address this issue in context of the Corey Green sentence, the article will give general background regarding application of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the status of Alabama law.


Eighth (8th) Amendment of the United States Constitution states:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.[1]

Many authorities have recognized that the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is to be enforced in relation to modern concepts of what constitutes "cruelty" and what is "unusual" as of the present time.[2] Although constitutional provisions barring cruel and unusual punishment are primarily aimed at inhuman and barbarous penalties, such as those involving various kinds of physical torture, it is also true that the duration of punishment, as well as the kind of punishment, comes within the purview of the constitutional proscription.[3]

Accordingly, while punishment by fine and imprisonment is not per se cruel and unusual, yet, where the duration of a sentence of imprisonment imposed on one convicted of a crime is so disproportionate to the offense committed as to shock the moral sense of the community, the punishment is constitutionally impermissible.[4] Nevertheless, although circumstances may exist under which a sentence of imprisonment may be cruel and unusual, Courts have ruled that regardless of a sentence’s severity or length, a sentence of imprisonment within the limits of a statute where the statute is deemed valid and constitutional does not ordinarily amount to cruel and unusual punishment.[5]

Status of Alabama Law

Generally, a sentence within the limits of a valid statute ordinarily is not cruel and unusual punishment.[6] There are exceptions to this general rule. There are circumstances under which a sentence may be considered cruel and unusual punishment under Alabama law.

For example, in Wilson v. State, the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals held that the statute mandating a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a first drug offense of trafficking in morphine violated constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as applied to the defendant.[7] In Wilson, the Court outlined factors that may be considered in assessing the severity of crime, in connection with determination of whether the sentence is grossly disproportionate under constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The factors include consideration of the circumstances of the crime, the harm caused to the victim or to society, the culpability of the offender, and the offender's motive in committing the crime.[8]

As it relates to cumulative or consecutive sentences, Alabama courts have ruled that they do not represent cruel and unusual punishment. For example, in Jolly v. State, the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals held that consecutive 20–year sentences for two counts of reckless manslaughter arising from a head–on collision did not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.[9]


In Alabama, this is the current status of the law. Hopefully, those who are working to provide legal counsel to Corey Green in appeal of the Alabama trial court's sentencing will be able to see if there is a possibility to argue the case under a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Legal Disclaimer: This site provides information about the law designed to keep readers informed of pertinent legal matters affecting the African-American community. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a lawyer in your specific location if you want professional assurance that our information, and your interpretation of it, is appropriate to your particular situation.

[1] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.
[2] Am. Jur. 2d, Criminal Law § 611
[3] Am. Jur. 2d, Criminal Law § 612
[4] Am. Jur. 2d, Criminal Law §§ 612, 614
[5] Length of sentence as violation of constitutional provisions prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, 33 A.L.R.3d 335 (2008). See also Tombrello v. State, 421 So. 2d 1319 (Ala. Crim. App. 1982).
[6] Tombrello v. State, 421 So. 2d 1319 (Ala. Crim. App. 1982).
[7] Wilson v. State, 830 So. 2d 765, 781 (Ala. Crim. App. 2001).
[8] Id. at 778.
[9] Jolly v. State, 858 So. 2d 305, 316 (Ala. Crim. App. 2002).

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