- Furman v. Georgia
Litigants=Furman v. Georgia
FullName=William Henry Furman v. State of Georgia
Citation=92 S. Ct. 2726; 33 L. Ed. 2d 346; 1972 U.S. LEXIS 169
Prior=Certiorari granted (403 U.S. 952)
Subsequent=Rehearing denied (409 U.S. 902)
Holding=The arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
JoinDissent=Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist
JoinDissent3=Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist
JoinDissent4=Burger, Blackmun, Powell
LawsApplied=U.S. Const. amends. VIII, XIV
"Furman v. Georgia", ussc|408|238|
1972was a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. The Court consolidated " Jackson v. Georgia" and " Branch v. Texas" with the "Furman" decision, and thus also invalidated the death penalty for rape. The court had also intended to include the case of " Aikens v. California", but between the time "Aikens" had been heard in oral argument and a decision was to be issued, the Supreme Court of Californiadecided in " California v. Anderson" that the death penalty violated the state constitution, thus the "Aikens" case was dismissed as moot since all death cases in California were overturned.
In the "Furman "case, the victim awoke in the middle of the night to find
William Henry Furmanburgling his house. At trial, in an unsworn statement allowed under Georgia criminal procedure, Furman said that while trying to escape, he tripped and the weapon he was carrying fired accidentally, killing the victim. This contradicted his prior statement to police that he had turned and blindly fired a shot while fleeing. In either event, because the shooting occurred during the commission of a felony, Furman would have been guilty of murder and eligible for the death penalty under then-extant state law. Furman was tried for murder and was found guilty based largely on his own statement. He was sentenced to death.
__TOC__The Supreme Court split five to four in overturning the imposition of the death penalty in each of the consolidated cases. The majority could not agree as to a rationale and did not produce a controlling opinion. Instead, each of the nine justices wrote separately, with none of the five justices constituting the majority joining in the opinion of any other.
Potter Stewart, as one of the majority, wrote that "These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. For, of all the people convicted of rapes and murders in 1967and 1968, many just as reprehensible as these, the petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed. My concurring Brothers have demonstrated that, if any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to death, it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race. See " McLaughlin v. Florida", [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=379&invol=184 379 U.S. 184] ( 1964) But racial discrimination has not been proved, and I put it to one side. I simply conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."
Byron Whiteand William O. Douglasexpressed similar concerns about the apparent arbitrariness with which death sentences were imposed under the existing laws. Justices Brennan and Marshall concurred on the grounds that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment" proscribed by the Eighth Amendment as incompatible with the evolving standards of decency of a contemporary society. Because the opinions of Justices Stewart and White were the narrowest, finding only that the death penalty as applied under the statutes in existence at the time was cruel and unusual, theirs are often considered the controlling majority opinions.
Chief Justice Burger and Justices
Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, and William H. Rehnquist, each appointed by Richard Nixon, dissented. They argued that capital punishment had always been regarded as appropriate under the Anglo-American legal tradition for serious crimes and that the text of the Constitution implicitly authorized United States death penalty laws because of the reference in the Fourteenth Amendment to the taking of "life."
In the following four years, 37 states enacted new death penalty laws aimed at overcoming the court's concerns about arbitrary imposition of the death penalty. Several statutes mandating bifurcated trials, with separate guilt-innocence and sentencing phases, and imposing standards to guide the discretion of juries and judges in imposing capital sentences, were upheld in a series of Supreme Court decisions in
1976, led by " Gregg v. Georgia". Other statutes enacted in response to "Furman" which mandated imposition of the death penalty upon conviction of certain crimes were struck down in cases of that same year.
Facts of the case
Furman was burglarizing a private home when a family member discovered him. He attempted to flee, and in doing so he tripped and fell. The gun that he was carrying went off and killed a resident of the home. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death (Two other death penalty cases were decided along with "Furman": "
Jackson v. Georgia" and " Branch v. Texas". These cases concern the constitutionality of the death sentence for rape and murder convictions, respectively).
Question of law
Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?
The Court decided that it does. The Court's one-page "per curiam" opinion held that the imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution. In over two hundred pages of concurrence and dissents, the justices articulated their views on this controversial subject. Only Justices Brennan and Marshall believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional in all instances. Other concurrences focused on the arbitrary nature with which death sentences have been imposed, often indicating a racial bias against black defendants. The Court's decision forced states and the national legislature to rethink their statutes for capital offenses to assure that the death penalty would not be administered in a capricious or discriminatory manner.
List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 408
Capital Jury Project
* [http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct-cgi/get-us-cite?408+238 "Furman v. Georgia", 408 U.S. 238 (1976)] (full text with links to cited material)
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