Victims' Rights Caucus

Speeches

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Mr. Speaker, I will address this house tonight on a very special issue. It is good to hear that the speakers prior to me used as the basis of their dialogue the Constitution.

   Far too often it seems to me that in this House we talk and pontificate about all kinds of things, but sometimes we forget the basis for all legislation, the basis for what we do, the basis for the oath that we took as Members of Congress, was to support the Constitution of the United States. 
  
   Like many Members of Congress, I carry a pocket Constitution with me to refer to from time to time. I want to read just one portion of the U.S. Constitution. It is the eighth amendment to the Constitution. We call the first 10 amendments to our Constitution the Bill of Rights.

   It says in the eighth amendment that excessive bail should not be required, nor excessive fines imposed. It also says nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. You notice the phrase is ``cruel and unusual punishment.'' Far too often some quote this phrase in the Constitution as cruel or unusual. That is not the law and it has never been the law. The law is punishment should not be cruel and unusual.

   A little history is in order. Our forefathers that wrote this Constitution did not come up with that phrase. It goes all of the way back to the English Bill of Rights from 1689. Most of the colonists had English heritage, and when they formed their federations and the States and colonies, they enacted certain laws. In those laws and later their State constitutions, they included the phrase that punishment should not be cruel and unusual.

   Then when our forefathers wrote this Constitution and made it the law, this eighth amendment was added to make sure that punishment was not cruel and unusual. So that is a little basis for where we came up with this phrase. There have been many debates over the years as to what does that mean, cruel and unusual punishment. Not many Supreme Court cases are involved in what the definition is. But there is one. In 1878, the Supreme Court of the United States in a case called Wilkerson v. Utah tried to define what the phrase ``cruel and unusual'' meant. Here is what they said: It is safe to affirm that punishments of torture, such as drawing and quartering, emboweling alive, such as took place in the movie Braveheart with William Wallace, beheading, public dissecting, and burning alive, and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by the eighth amendment to the Constitution. I doubt there are many Americans who would disagree with that interpretation of what ``cruel and unusual'' means.

   But we have a new issue before us today, and this issue is coming before the United States Supreme Court which meets right down the street from us. Those nine members of the Supreme Court have decided to take two cases from Kentucky that deal with the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.

   Two men in Kentucky received the death penalty for crimes against the citizens of Kentucky. And they argue now, years later, that the means by which they are executed is cruel and unusual. That means, Mr. Speaker, is by lethal injection. Kentucky's lethal injection procedures are the same as many States, including my home State of Texas. Just to be clear, three chemicals are used for lethal injection. The first is sodium thiopentothal which renders a person unconscious, and pavulon which paralyzes the muscles, including those which control breathing, an