Punishment under the common law was frequently horrifying. Death was a common punishment for relatively minor crimes. In many places throughout the world, punishments still persist that seem cruel and unusual, such as the practice of stoning someone to death. The guillotine, famously in use during and after the French Revolution, is no longer used, nor are defendants put in stocks for public display and humiliation. In pre-Revolutionary America, an unlucky defendant who found himself convicted could face brutal torture before death.
The Eighth Amendment banned these actions with the words that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” Virtually all such punishments either never were enacted or have been eliminated from the statute books in the United States. Nevertheless, the Eighth Amendment has become a source of controversy, first with the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1976 that the death penalty, as haphazardly applied in the various states, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Later Supreme Court opinions have made it easier for states to administer the death penalty. As of 2010, there were 3,300 defendants on death row in the United States. Of course, no corporation is on death row, and no corporation’s charter has ever been revoked by a US state, even though some corporations have repeatedly been indicted and convicted of criminal offenses.