Cruel & Unusual: When is Punishment Too Much?

Last week, the South Dakota Supreme Court issued a pair of decision upholding severe sentences.  In State v. Shelton, the Court upheld a 25 year sentence for a defendant convicted of three relatively minor drug distribution offenses.  In State v. Klinetobe, the defendant received life in prison without the possibility of parole for aiding and abetting first degree manslaughter.  Both defendants argued that their sentences were cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.

When I read the decisions, I wasn't surprised that the Court unanimously upheld the sentences.   I think its been a couple decades since the Court found a sentence so excessive that it violated the Eighth Amendment.  I could be wrong about that, but it seems like every sentence is affirmed on appeal.


When challenging the excessiveness of a sentence, the deck is structurally stacked against the defendant.  As the Court noted in the Klinetobe case:  "When this Court reviews sentenced challenged under the Eighth Amendment, we are to determine whether the sentence imposed is grossly disproportionate to its corresponding offense.  This inquiry requires us to first compare the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty.  Such a comparison rarely leads to an inference of gross disproportionality and typically marks the end of our review."

Essentially, what the Court has acknowledged is that the first hurdle to overcome is so high that a defendant rarely prevails.  Both Shelton and Klinetobe are good examples of this. 

Klinetobe is a brutal, tragic case.  A young woman was stabbed over a 20 minute period and died begging for her life.  But, Klinetobe didn't kill her.  He wasn't even in the vicinity.  He set the wheels in motion to have her killed, but didn't actually do anything to cause her death.  The charge he pled to was consistent with his culpability.  He aided and abetted others in their killing of her.  The problem is that Klinetobe's sentence doesn't reflect his lesser culpability.  Whether he committed first degree murder, second degree murder, or first degree manslaughter, the punishment can be the same:  life without parole. In his case, the offense was brutal and heartless, but his role in it was that of an instigator, not a killer.  But, the Court's analysis is to compare the sentence to the offense, not necessarily to look at an individual's role within the crime.

Similarly, Shelton was busted for selling $50.00 of methamphetamine to an informant.  Unfortunately for Shelton, his house was within a school zone, which dramatically increased his sentence.  When reviewing the sentence, the Supreme Court noted that "The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between the crime and the sentence, but instead forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime."  Apparently, 25 years for selling $50.00 of meth was not sufficiently disproportionate to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.