Furman v. Georgia: 1972
Furman v. Georgia: 1972
Appellant & Defendant: William Henry Furman
Appellee & Plaintiff: State of Georgia
Appellant Claim: That the Georgia death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments
Chief Defense Lawyers: Dorothy T. Beasley, Arthur K. Bolton, Harold N. Hill, Jr., Andrew J. Ryan, Jr., Andrew J. Ryan, Ill and Courtney Wilder Stanton
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Anthony G. Amsterdam, Elizabeth B. Dubois, Jack Greenberg, Jack Himmelstein, B. Clarence Mayfield, and Michael Meltsner
Justices: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger, William 0. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, and Byron R. White
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: June 29, 1972
Decision: Georgia death penalty statute declared unconstitutional
SIGNIFlCANCE: Although Furman v. Georgia did not completely abolish the death penalty, it placed stringent requirements on death penalty statutes.
On the night of August 11, 1967, 29-year-old William Joseph Micke, Jr., came home from work to his wife and five children in the city of Savannah, Georgia. He went to bed around midnight. Two hours later, the Mickes were awakened by strange noises in the kitchen. Thinking that one of his children was sleepwalking, William Micke went into the kitchen to investigate. He found William Henry Furman there, a 26-year-old black man who had broken into the house and was carrying a gun. Furman fled the house, shooting Micke as he left. The bullet hit Micke in the chest and he died instantly. Micke's family promptly called the police, who arrived on the scene within minutes. The police searched the neighborhood and found Furman, who was still carrying the murder weapon.
Furman was charged with murder and was tried in the Superior Court of Chatham County, Georgia, on September 20, 1968. Furman was a poor man, and he got a poor man's trial. His court-appointed lawyer, B. Clarence Mayfield, received the court-approved standard retainer for murder cases: $150, which did not include costs. The trial lasted just one day: the jury was selected at 10:00 AM., the evidence was presented and the judge's instructions to the jury given by 3:30 p.m., and the jury's guilty verdict was returned at 5:00 p.m.
Long before the trial, the court committed Furman to the Georgia Central State Hospital at Milledgeville for psychological examination. Furman had dropped out of school after the sixth grade, and he tested in the lowest 4 percent of the test's intelligence range. The hospital diagnosed Furman as being mentally deficient and subject to psychotic episodes. Nevertheless, the court denied Furman's insanity plea at trial.
Furman Sentenced to Death
Under Georgia law, Furman faced the death penalty. This was despite the fact that Furman had testified that his shooting of Micke was accidental:
I admit going to these folks' home and they did caught me in there and I was coming back out, backing up and there was a wire down there on the floor. I was coming out backwards and fell back and I didn't intend to kill nobody.… The gun went off and I didn't know nothing about no murder until they arrested me, and when the gun went off I was down on the floor and I got up and ran. That's all to it.
Georgia's death penalty statute, however, permitted executions even for unintended killings. So long as Furman had broken into the Micke house illegally, it was irrelevant that his shooting was accidental since that shooting had caused Micke's death while Furman was committing a criminal act. The judge's instructions to the jury made this clear:
If you believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant broke and entered the dwelling of the deceased with intent to commit a felony or a larceny and that after so breaking and entering with such intent, the defendant killed the deceased in the manner set forth in the indictment, and if you find that such killing was the natural, reasonable and probable consequence of such breaking and entering, then I instruct you that under such circumstances, you would be authorized to convict the defendant of murder and this you would be authorized to do whether the defendant intended to kill the deceased or not.
The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Furman's conviction and death sentence on April 24, 1969, but on May 3, 1969, Chief Justice W.H. Duckworth stayed the execution so that Furman could file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. Furman was no longer represented solely by court-appointed counsel: his case had generated some publicity, and several lawyers were now handling his appeal. Furman's chief lawyers were Anthony G. Amsterdam, Elizabeth B. Dubois, Jack Greenberg, Jack Himmelstein, B. Clarence Mayfield, and Michael Meltsner. The State of Georgia's chief lawyers were Dorothy T. Beasley, Arthur K. Bolton, Harold N. Hill, Jr., Andrew J. Ryan, Jr., Andrew J. Ryan III, and Courtney Wilder Stanton.
On January 17, 1972, the parties argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The Court had agreed to hear the case to answer the legal question of whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
The Court issued its decision June 29, 1972. By a narrow five-to-four majority, the justices voted to overturn Furman's conviction on the grounds that in his case the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The justices were deeply divided over how to interpret the Eighth Amendment, however. All nine justices filed separate opinions stating their legal reasoning, which is highly unusual. For the most part, Justice William 0. Douglas' opinion spoke for the five-member majority.
Court Severely Restricts Death Penalty
Douglas reviewed the history of capital punishment under the English common law, from the Norman Conquest in 1066 through the American colonial period and up to the ratification of the Constitution. He noted that English law had evolved to consider the death penalty unfair when applied selectively to minorities, outcasts, and unpopular groups. In America, the Court had already held that discriminatory enforcement of the law violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, if a death penalty statute was applied in a discriminatory manner, it was unfair and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. For Furman, the death penalty was unfair because there had not been enough protection for him at trial. He had gotten a quick one-day trial and he was black, poor, uneducated, and mentally ill:
The generality of a law inflicting capital punishment is one thing. What may be said of the validity of a law on the books and what may be done with the law in its application do, or may, lead to quite different conclusions.
It would seem to be incontestable that the death penalty inflicted on one defendant is "unusual" if it discriminates against him by reason of his race, religion, wealth, social position, or class, or if it is imposed under a procedure that gives room for the play of such prejudices.
The rest of Douglas' opinion reads almost like a professional case study of prisoner treatment throughout the United States. Based on surveys and statistics drawn from a variety of sources, Douglas concluded that the death penalty was disproportionately applied to blacks, the poor, and other groups who are at a disadvantage in society:
Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark has said, "It is the poor, the sick, the ignorant, the powerless and the hated who are executed." One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of this society.
Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall, who had voted with Douglas, wrote opinions that called for the complete abolition of the death penalty for all crimes and under any circumstances. They were in the minority, however, and so Douglas' opinion embodied the impact of the Court's decision: the death penalty could still be imposed, but only if the law bent over backwards to make sure that people like Furman were protected.
While Furman v. Georgia was hailed as a landmark decision protecting minorities and other historically oppressed groups, it didn't give the states much guidance on what they had to do to make their death penalty statutes comply with the Eighth Amendment. In the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, the Court upheld the death penalty imposed on a convicted murderer under a revamped Georgia statute that required sentencing hearings and other protective procedures. Most states with death penalty statutes have followed Gregg and modified their laws so there are procedures to protect the poor, minorities, the mentally ill, and other groups. Further, most states have repealed the death penalty for accidental killings and other crimes less serious than cold-blooded intentional murder.
Furman v. Georgia did not forbid capital punishment, but it did place strict requirements on death penalty statutes, at both the state and federal levels, based on the Eighth Amendment.
—Stephen G. Christianson
Suggestions for Further Reading
Aguirre, Adalberto. Race, Racism, and the Death Penalty in the United States. Berrien Spring, Mich.: Vande Vere, 1991.
Congregation of the Condemned: Voices Against the Death Penalty. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.
Horwitz, Elinor Lander. Capital Punishment, U.S.A. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1973.
Radelet, Michael L. In Spite of Innocence: Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Trombley, Stephen. The Execution Protocol. Inside America's Capital Punishment Industry. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992.