Crime & Punishment: The History of Our 6th, 7th, & 8th Amendments

Two years before the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin endorsed the maxim: “That it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape, than that one innocent person should suffer.” It is in this spirit that the United States of America protects the rights of the accused, presuming them innocent until proven guilty. But what are the origins of this belief and its importance? And at what point does liberty obstruct law and order? On September 15, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society continues our series on the Constitution with an exploration of the 6th, 7th, and 8th Amendments that guarantee our right to a speedy trial, a jury of our peers, and if convicted, protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Our featured guest for this vital conversation is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, Akhil Reed Amar, J.D.

We will discuss the abuses listed in the Declaration of Independence that inspired the Constitution’s “Trial Amendments” and how the guarantee of our rights has evolved over time: from the early Republic to Jim Crow through the modern day. We will also discuss how American courts define cruel and unusual punishment, including examples of the death penalty and excessive prison sentences.

Professor Amar has won awards from the American Bar Association and the Federalist Society and often testifies before Congress as a witness for both Republicans and Democrats. He began his career as a clerk for then-Judge Stephen Breyer and has been cited by the Supreme Court in more than 45 cases. His scholarship has been featured on Fox News by Tucker Carlson, MSNBC by Brian Williams, and CNN by Erin Burnett, among many others.

Professor Amar is also the author of more than 100 law review articles and several books, including The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840. You can learn more about the Constitution on his podcast, Amarica’s Constitution.