Does Feeding Prisoners to a Hungry Wookiee violate the Eighth Amendment?

A Dinner Menu of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Early in the movie Solo we learn that a young Han has joined the Imperial military. Although he did not succeed as an Imperial pilot, we find him as a foot soldier on the planet Mimban. After complaining that he does not know what they are fighting for, Han tries to leave his post and escape from both the Imperial military, and the planet.

Not exactly an Imperial Recruitment Poster

SPOILER WARNING.

In that process, the Imperial military captures Han and tosses him into a pit to be fed to a familiar and very hungry Wookiee. My esteemed friend Thomas Harper has already covered the issue of Han Solo’s desertion in an excellent blog post. This writing will cover the punishment for Han’s desertion, and whether the act of feeding prisoners to a hungry creature would violate the prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Hmm, needs salt.

First, a few assumptions: this discussion will take the U.S. Constitution and the decisional holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court and various federal courts and apply those precedents to what happened in Solo: A Star Wars Story. We will put aside the Geneva Convention for this write-up, and simply focus on the U.S. Constitution. As of the time of Solo, we know that the Galactic Empire has taken over the galaxy, with Palpatine as the Supreme Emperor. While the existence of judges and courts has been referenced in other movies during the time of the Old Republic, it would be unlikely that a similar court system would continue to exist during the tyrannical time of the Empire. Or, if such a system did continue to exist, it would be unlikely that the courts would actually defy the Emperor’s wishes and force him to bend his conduct to conform to established laws.

We see examples during the original trilogy where authoritarian rule prevails and individual constitutional rights do not appear to be of great concern. Notably, the Imperial Senate is disbanded, whole planets are destroyed as a warning to the rest of the galaxy, and Stormtroopers freely enforce the Empire’s will upon numerous worlds.

That brings us back to Solo, where, practically speaking, the Imperial military can do as it wishes. However, IF there were a functioning court system that upheld laws similar to those of the US Supreme Court and US Constitution, what would happen? Let’s take a look.

Join the Empire and get a cool uniform.

First, let’s examine why Han was being punished in Solo. He left his post and was trying to escape from the Imperial military and the planet Mimban. As noted in Thomas Harper’s write-up, this is desertion, which is a serious military crime and can be punishable by death. Therefore, the question of whether Han could be put to death is a bit of a different discussion. If the Imperial military operates similar to the militaries of our world, Han would typically be given some due process before being fed to the monsters. That would normally involve a judicial proceeding such as a court martial, with counsel to represent him. We will assume then, for purposes of this write-up, that after what, if any, judicial process is afforded to deserters of the Emperor’s army, Han has been found guilty and sentenced to death.

That then leads to our discussion of punishment which we can break into two parts: (1) does the mere fact of Han being sent for execution violate his Eighth Amendment rights; and (2) does the manner of feeding Han to a hungry Wookiee violate his Eighth Amendment rights?

The Death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the death penalty is not per se unconstitutional, as it can serve the social purposes of retribution and deterrence. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 183–87 (1976). However, the U.S. Supreme Court has also held that while punishment by death in and of itself is not cruel in violation of the constitution, the manner of execution can be said to be inhuman and barbarous. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 241-42 (1972).

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. constitution reads as follows:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The provision that references cruel and unusual punishments finds its roots in the English Act of Parliament of 1688, entitled “An act for declaring the rights and liberties of the subject, and settling the succession of the crown.” That act provided that “excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This declaration of rights referred to the acts of the executive and judicial departments of the government of England. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 444 (1890).

The U.S. Supreme Court has observed that certain punishments have been considered cruel and unusual such as burning at the stake, crucifixion, and breaking on the wheel. In those cases, it is the duty of the courts to prohibit such punishments pursuant to the authority provided by the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court also noted over 100 years ago that it would be difficult to define with exactness the extent of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. However, the High Court has noted that punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death. Kemmler, 136 U.S. at 444-45.

Over time, the Supreme Court has also observed that the definition of cruel and unusual punishments may change over time, and that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

Gambling on the Eighth Amendment

That brings us back to Solo and the Star Wars universe. The authorities discussed above make it clear that the fact of Han being sent to death would not, in and of itself, violate his constitutional rights. We are then left with the manner of his attempted execution: being fed to a hungry Wookiee. It is very likely that being fed to a hungry carnivorous creature as a means of execution would involve considerable fear, pain, and a lingering death. The numerous victims of the Rancor from ROTJ would likely attest to that, if they were somehow able to testify. Being chased around by a starving carnivorous creature with the expectation of being consumed would prolong death when compared to other methods. Death by blaster fire or even by Force choke could be seen as more humane given the quickness and efficiency of those methods. Han could certainly make a strong case that being fed to a hungry Wookiee violates his constitutional rights, and he should have a good feeling that a court would prevent such a method of execution as a result. Han would not be able to escape his execution altogether on these legal grounds, but he could at least change the method of his planned demise.

Incidentally, one can imagine the Star Wars tale in which a prisoner who is tossed into a monster pit makes such a complaint about their rights, only to be met with a retort of “okay,” followed by a blaster bolt leveling the prisoner a moment later. So maybe this constitutional knowledge would not save your life, but at least it could change the way in which one dies. In Han’s prescient later words: “Over my dead body!” Maybe there would be a way to stave off execution (i.e. freezing him in carbonite), but at the uncivilized time of the Mimban operation, such a method would more likely involve blasters than legal briefs.