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Twenty years ago, Johnny killed his wife in a fit of rage


Twenty years ago, Johnny killed his wife in a fit of rage

Twenty years ago, Johnny killed his wife in a fit of rage when he came home one night and saw her in bed with another man. Based on the mandatory sentencing guidelines at the time of his conviction, Johnny was sentenced to life in prison without any opportunity for parole.

For the past 20 years, Johnny has been a model prisoner. He finished his college degree and worked as a cook in the prison kitchen. One day, a fight in the mess hall between two other prisoners resulted in the death of one prisoner and several injuries to prison guards. At the time, Johnny was working in the kitchen and took no role in the fight.

After the fight, the warden of the prison imposed a series of punishments. First, the warden ordered a 24-hour lockdown of the prison. This lockdown lasted 10 days, during which prisoners were not allowed out of their cells.

Second, the warden ordered that prisoners be deprived of all “treats” including adult magazines, reading materials, caffeinated sodas, candy, and desserts; visiting privileges for all prisoners were halted for one year.

Finally, and perhaps worst, the warden decided to isolate the most violent prisoners for an extended period. Because of Johnny’s murder conviction, the warden ordered Johnny to serve six months in solitary confinement.

After doing his time in solitary, Johnny filed an internal complaint with the warden. In his complaint, Johnny argued that the warden’s punitive measures violated his Eighth Amendment rights. The warden denied Johnny’s complaint and Johnny then filed a complaint in the federal court.

***please represent the warden, who is most likely represented by the government.  Show, using case law and other legal arguments, how the warden’s measures did not constitute violations of the Eighth Amendment. 

***Please note that the Week 7 Content section contains review of the case law relevant to this discussion so please be sure to review that material. ***

Have fun with this! Be strong advocates for your clients but be sure to use the law to support your position, not simply opinions.

To determine whether Johnny’s Eighth Amendment rights were violated, we need to explore the exact wording of the Eighth Amendment, which is more difficult than it sounds. The term “cruel and unusual punishment” is left undefined and, thus, the Eighth Amendment is subject to broad interpretation.

While most Supreme Court cases interpreting the Eighth Amendment involve challenges to the death penalty, the Supreme Court also reviews prisoner challenges to life-without-parole sentences.

In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), for example, the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment for a judge to sentence a petty criminal to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole for writing a bad check. However, in Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), the Supreme Court held that it was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment for a state judge to sentence a first time offender to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for a drug offense.

In relevant part, the Supreme Court in Hamelin held that the Eighth Amendment only prohibits “grossly disproportionate” sentences. Therefore, it is not necessary for a sentence to be directly proportional to the crime.

SOLEM V. HELM In 1979, Jerry Helm (the case’s defendant; Solem was the warden of the South Dakota State Penitentiary at the time) was convicted for passing a “no account” check in the amount of $100. Under ordinary circumstances, the maximum sentence was five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Helm was sentenced to life without possibility of parole, however, because South Dakota law meant that his prior felony convictions, although nonviolent, brought a

special sentencing guideline into play. Previously, Helm had been convicted of burglary, grand larceny, and driving while intoxicated.

In 1986, Ronald A. Harmelin was convicted of possessing more than 650 grams (about two pounds) of cocaine, and sentenced to life without parole, according to the mandatory sentencing guidelines in Michigan. The State Court of Appeals rejected his appeal which was made on the grounds that the sentence was “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Harmelin claimed that the sentence was “significantly disproportionate” to is crime.


In the case of Solem v. Helm, the court held that the cruel and unusual provision only barred barbaric punishments and sentences that are disproportionate to the crime.

In Harmelin v. Michigan, the sentence was not found to be cruel and unusual, because of the interpretation through precedent in capita cases that the provision does not apply to noncapital crimes.


In addition to examining life sentences, the Supreme Court has also reviewed whether the conditions of a prisoner’s imprisonment may violate the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.

For example, the Supreme Court in Estelle v. Gamble, held that a prisoner can sue prison doctors for their failure to provide adequate medical treatment if the prisoner can prove that doctors were “deliberately indifferent.”

Estelle v. Gamble What is considered “reasonable” medical care for prisoners is built on Estelle v. Gamble (1976), in which the Court ruled on “the evolving standard of decency” for prison medical care.

The restriction against cruel and unusual punishment was applied to health care of those in prison, so the Court ruled that denying medically necessary care violated the Eighth Amendment, writing that, “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs” was the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”

The Court outlined three medical care rights that prisoners are entitled to:

1. Access to medical care for diagnosis and treatment; 2. A professional medical judgment; and 3. Administration of the treatment prescribed by the physician.

These same standards apply to pretrial detainees and juveniles in detention, via the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs must prove a “serious medical need”— defined as anything that causes unnecessary pain, a measurable deterioration in organ or body function, death or substantial risk to public health—at trial. Such a serious medical need is defined as a health condition that will result in.

“Deliberate indifference” to such conditions is a phrase that was defined through the courts as well. In Farmer v. Brennan (1994) the Supreme Court gave some direction as to what it meant by the phrase by ruling that a prisoner must only demonstrate that medical needs were known about and ignored. It is a subjective test, but it is built on the objective test of medical need.

In the 1990s, some states enacted so-called enhanced sentencing or “three strikes laws” requiring the imposition of mandatory life sentences to those convicted of three felonies. Some court cases have alleged that such laws violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

Background of Gary Ewing

Before he came up for trial under the three strikes law, Gary Ewing had committed other, more serious, offenses, served his time, and been released. Here is a description of his most serious previous crimes:

Ewing’s most recent prior convictions were three home burglaries in an apartment complex, including one in which he threatened someone at knifepoint and another in which the victim was home at the time of his forced entry. When arrested, he was found to have the knife on his person.

In a challenge to California’s three strikes law, one life-long criminal, Gary Ewing was sentenced to life in prison after a shoplifting conviction. This case asks if 25 years to life when the defendant has been convicted of two previous times for grand theft violates the Eighth Amendment.

The majority in Ewing v. California (2003) held that the “three strikes” law was not “grossly disproportionate” and did not violate the Eighth Amendment because the sentence factored in his long criminal history that included several violent crimes.

However, in dissent, four Supreme Court Justices held that Ewing would not have received a similar sentence in many other states for the same crime. Moreover, the dissenters argued that a life

sentence for shoplifting was “grossly disproportionate” and that Ewing’s prior crimes should not have impacted his sentencing.

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