Furman v. Georgia

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), was a criminal case in which the United States Supreme Court struck down all death penalty schemes in the United States in a 5–4 decision, with each member of the majority writing a separate opinion.[1]:467–8 Following Furman, in order to reinstate the death penalty, states had to at least remove arbitrary and discriminatory effects, to satisfy the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[1]:468

The decision ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. This case led to a de facto moratorium on capital punishment throughout the United States, which came to an end when Gregg v. Georgia was decided in 1976 to allow the death penalty.

The Supreme Court consolidated Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas with the Furman decision, thereby invalidating the death penalty for rape (this ruling was confirmed post-Gregg in Coker v. Georgia). 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 California decided in California v. Anderson that the death penalty violated the state constitution. The Aikens case was dismissed as moot since all death sentences in California were reduced to life imprisonment.

Furman v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 17, 1972
Decided June 29, 1972
Full case nameWilliam Henry Furman v. State of Georgia
Citations408 U.S. 238 (more)
92 S. Ct. 2726; 33 L. Ed. 2d 346; 1972 U.S. LEXIS 169
Case history
PriorCert. granted, 403 U.S. 952.
SubsequentRehearing denied, 409 U.S. 902.
The arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William O. Douglas · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
Case opinions
Per curiam
DissentBurger, joined by Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist
DissentPowell, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist
DissentRehnquist, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Powell
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VIII, XIV


In the Furman v. Georgia case, the resident awoke in the middle of the night to find William Henry Furman committing burglary in 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, according to the felony murder rule. Furman was tried for murder and was found guilty based largely on his own statement. Although he was sentenced to death, the punishment was never carried out.

Jackson v. Georgia, like Furman, was also a death penalty case confirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia. Unlike Furman, however, the convicted man in Jackson had not killed anyone, but attempted to commit armed robbery and committed rape in the process of doing so. Branch v. Texas was brought to the Supreme Court of the United States on appeal on certiorari to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Like Jackson, Branch was convicted of rape.[2]


In a 5–4 decision, the Court's one-paragraph per curiam opinion held that the imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution.[3] However, the majority could not agree as to a rationale. There was no opinion of the court or plurality as none of the five justices constituting the majority joined in the opinion of any other.

  • Justices Potter Stewart, Byron White and William O. Douglas expressed similar concerns about the apparent arbitrariness with which death sentences were imposed under the existing laws, often indicating a racial bias against black defendants. Because these opinions were the narrowest, finding only that the death penalty as currently applied was cruel and unusual, they are often considered the controlling majority opinions. Stewart wrote:

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 1967 and 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, 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.

  • Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall concluded that the death penalty was in itself "cruel and unusual punishment," and incompatible with the evolving standards of decency of a contemporary society.


Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, and William H. Rehnquist, each appointed by President Richard Nixon, dissented. They argued that a punishment provided in 40 state statutes (at the time) and by the federal government could not be ruled contrary to the so-called "evolving standard of decency."


The Furman decision caused all death sentences pending at the time to be reduced to life imprisonment, and it was described by scholars as a "legal bombshell."[4] The next day, columnist Barry Schweid wrote that it was "unlikely" that the death penalty could exist anymore in the United States.[5]

The Court's decision forced states and the U.S. Congress to rethink their statutes for capital offenses to ensure that the death penalty would not be administered in a capricious or discriminatory manner.[6]

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 that mandated 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, such as Louisiana's which mandated imposition of the death penalty upon conviction of a certain crime, were struck down in cases of that same year.

See also


  1. ^ a b Criminal Law - Cases and Materials, 7th ed. 2012, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business; John Kaplan, Robert Weisberg, Guyora Binder, ISBN 978-1-4548-0698-1, [1]
  2. ^ "Branch v. Texas". TheFreeDictionary.com.
  3. ^ Cornell University Law School. "Furman v. Georgia (No. 69-5003)". cornell.edu.
  4. ^ Barry Latzer (2010), Death Penalty Cases: Leading U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Capital Punishment, Elsevier, p.37.
  5. ^ The Free Lance-Star - Jun 30, 1972 : "New laws unlikely on death penalty," by Barry Schweid
  6. ^ "Furman v. Georgia - The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law". oyez.org.

Further reading

External links

Aikens v. California

Aikens v. California, 406 U.S. 813 (1972), was a decision of the United States Supreme Court where a petitioner (in the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiff (Aikens) is called the petitioner and the defendant (the State of California) is called the respondent) was appealing his conviction and death sentence. After oral argument had been made on the case, but before the court decided on it, the Supreme Court of California in People v. Anderson, declared the death penalty unconstitutional under the state constitution. This made his appeal unnecessary because the decision in Anderson

declared capital punishment in California unconstitutional under Art. 1, 6, of the state constitution... The California Supreme Court declared in the Anderson case that its decision was fully retroactive and stated that any prisoner currently under sentence of death could petition a superior court to modify its judgment. [Aikens] thus no longer faces a realistic threat of execution... [emphasis added]

The Supreme Court would decide later that year, in Furman v. Georgia, that the Death Penalty was under certain circumstances unconstitutional. Aikens was originally one of four cases that were selected along with Furman, but when the Anderson case was decided by the California Supreme Court, Aikens became moot.

Anthony G. Amsterdam

Anthony Guy Amsterdam (born September 12, 1935) is an American lawyer and professor of law at New York University School of Law. In 1981, Alan Dershowitz called Amsterdam “the most distinguished law professor in the United States.”Amsterdam grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia.Working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Amsterdam argued and won Furman v. Georgia in 1972, in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. He sits on the board of directors of the Death Penalty Information Center.Amsterdam was educated at Haverford College and University of Pennsylvania School of Law. He also wrote one of the most influential papers on the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.

Capital punishment in Georgia (U.S. state)

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Georgia. Georgia reintroduced the death penalty in 1973 after Furman v. Georgia ruled all states' death penalty statutes unconstitutional. The first execution to take place afterwards occurred in 1983.

As of May 2, 2019, 73 people in total have been executed since 1983. As of January 1, 2019, 50 men are on death row awaiting execution.

Capital punishment in Illinois

Capital punishment was a legal form of punishment in the U.S. state of Illinois until 2011, when it was abolished.

Initially, Illinois used death by hanging as a form of execution. The last person executed by this method was the public execution of Charles Birger. In 1928, the electric chair was substituted for death by hanging. After being struck down by Furman v. Georgia in 1972, the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois on July 1, 1974 but voided by the Supreme Court of Illinois in 1975. Illinois officially reinstated the death penalty on July 1, 1977. Lethal injection was adopted in the state in 1990, but the electric chair remained operational in Illinois to replace lethal injection if needed.

In 1994, the state executed serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who sexually assaulted, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in Cook County (a part of metropolitan Chicago). The last man executed in Illinois was the serial killer Andrew Kokoraleis in 1999.

On January 11, 2003 the Republican Governor George Ryan blanket commuted the sentences of all the 167 inmates condemned to death, and pardoned four of them, a gesture that his opponents attribute to the fact that he was rendered ineligible by his unpopularity and charged with conspiracy, racketeering and fraud.Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation on March 9, 2011 to abolish the death penalty in Illinois to go into effect July 1, 2011, and commuted the death sentences of the fifteen inmates on Illinois' death row to life imprisonment. Quinn was criticized for signing the bill after saying that he supported the death penalty during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign after which he defeated the Republican candidate with 46.8% of the vote.In 2018, Governor Bruce Rauner made calls for the death penalty to be imposed on convicted cop killers, but it was not reinstated.

Capital punishment in Maryland

Capital punishment was abolished on May 2, 2013 in the U.S. state of Maryland.The death penalty has been in use in the state or, more precisely, its predecessor colony since June 20, 1638, when two men were hanged for piracy in St. Mary's County. A total of 309 people were executed by a variety of methods from 1638 to June 9, 1961, the last execution before Furman v. Georgia. Since that time, five people have been executed.

The "Death Row" for men was in the North Branch Correctional Institution in Western Maryland's Cumberland area. The execution chamber is in the Metropolitan Transition Center (the former Maryland Penitentiary). The five men who were on the State's "death row" were moved in June 2010 from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.

Capital punishment in New Hampshire

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of New Hampshire. It is authorized as punishment only for capital murder, as defined by law. New Hampshire is the only remaining state in New England to authorize capital punishment by law. Although no one has been executed in the state since July 1939, governors and other politicians have curried support by continued approval of the death penalty.

In December 2008, Michael "Stix" Addison was sentenced to death for the murder of Manchester police officer Michael L. Briggs. He is the only person on death row in New Hampshire, and the state has no execution facility.

A bill to repeal the state's death penalty passed both houses of the NH legislature in 2019 with veto-proof margins. Nevertheless, Governor Chris Sununu vetoed the bill. An override vote is scheduled for May 23. The bill will not apply retroactively to those on death row.

Capital punishment in New York

While laws regarding the imposition of capital punishment in the State of New York are still on the books, it is no longer enforced as it has been declared unconstitutional in the state and this ruling has not been overturned. The last execution took place in 1963, when Eddie Mays was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison. The state was the first to adopt the electric chair as a method of execution, which replaced hanging.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling declaring existing capital punishment statutes unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (1972), New York was without a death penalty until 1995, when Governor George Pataki signed a new statute into law, which provided for execution by lethal injection.

In June 2004, the state's highest court ruled in People v. LaValle that the state's death penalty statute violated the state constitution, and New York has had an effective moratorium on capital punishment since then. Subsequent legislative attempts at fixing or replacing the statute have failed, and in 2008 Governor David Paterson issued an executive order disestablishing New York's death row. Legislative efforts to amend the statute have failed, and death sentences are no longer sought at the state level, though certain crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government are subject to the federal death penalty.Even though the current death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional by the New York State Court of Appeals in 2004 and there are currently no "death row" or execution facilities, the death penalty statute was never fully repealed. On August 2, 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he was advancing legislation to remove the death penalty from New York State statute.

Cincinnati Strangler

The Cincinnati Strangler was the name given to a serial killer who raped, then strangled seven mostly elderly women in Cincinnati, Ohio between 1965 and 1966. The identity of the Cincinnati Strangler is commonly believed to be former cab driver Posteal Laskey Jr.During the killing spree there was considerable alarm on the part of many Cincinnatians, with locksmiths and hardware stores unable to keep up with the demand for locks. Despite being charged with only one murder, the citywide panic only abated after Laskey's arrest and conviction, when the killings suddenly stopped, thus supporting investigators' claim that they successfully found and jailed the Cincinnati Strangler.

Originally sentenced to death, Laskey's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when the Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. In February 2007, Laskey was denied parole. The grounds cited by the Ohio Parole Board included the heinous nature of the crime, Laskey's prior record, and the community disapproval of an early release.He would have been eligible for parole again in 2017 at the age of 79 years and was incarcerated in the Pickaway Correctional Institution. Laskey died on May 29, 2007 of natural causes, while still in prison. No one claimed his body and prison officials said he was buried in one of the State of Ohio's prison cemeteries.

Clinton Correctional Facility

Clinton Correctional Facility is a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision maximum security state prison for men located in the Village of Dannemora, New York. The prison itself is sometimes colloquially referred to as Dannemora, although its actual name is derived from its location in Clinton County, New York. The southern perimeter wall of the prison borders New York State Route 374. Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, a church built by inmates, is located within the walls. The prison is sometimes referred to as New York's Little Siberia due to the cold climate in Dannemora and the isolation of the area. It is the largest maximum security prison and the third oldest prison in New York. The staff includes about a thousand guards.In the post-Furman v. Georgia period and prior to 2008, it housed the New York State death row for men.

Gary Gilmore (criminal)

Gary Mark Gilmore (December 4, 1940 – January 17, 1977) was an American criminal who gained international attention for demanding the implementation of his death sentence for two murders he committed in Utah. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new series of death penalty statutes in the 1976 decision Gregg v. Georgia, he became the first person in almost ten years to be executed in the United States. These new statutes avoided the problems under the 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which had resulted in earlier death penalty statutes being deemed as "cruel and unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court had previously ordered all states to commute death sentences to life imprisonment after Furman v. Georgia.) Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in 1977. His life and execution were the subject of the 1979 nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and 1982 TV film of the novel starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore.

Godfrey v. Georgia

Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420 (1980), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a death sentence could not be granted for a murder when the only aggravating factor was that the murder was found to be "outrageously or wantonly vile."

The Court reversed and remanded the Georgia death penalty sentence because, under Furman v. Georgia, such a factor did not help sentencing judges or juries avoid arbitrary and capricious infliction of the death penalty.

Harry Blackmun

Harry Andrew Blackmun (November 12, 1908 – March 4, 1999) was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 until 1994. Appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, Blackmun ultimately became one of the most liberal justices on the Court. He is best known as the author of the Court's opinion in Roe v. Wade, which prohibits many state and federal restrictions on abortion.Raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Blackmun graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932. He practiced law in Minneapolis, Minnesota, representing clients such as the Mayo Clinic. In 1959, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the defeat of two previous nominees, President Richard Nixon successfully nominated Blackmun to the Supreme Court to replace Associate Justice Abe Fortas. Blackmun and his close friend, conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, were often referred to as the "Minnesota Twins," but Blackmun drifted away from Burger during their tenure on the court. Blackmun retired from the Court during the administration of President Bill Clinton, and was succeeded by Stephen Breyer.

Aside from Roe v. Wade, notable majority opinions written by Blackmun include Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, Bigelow v. Commonwealth of Virginia, and Stanton v. Stanton. He joined part of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey but also filed a separate opinion, warning that Roe was in jeopardy. He wrote dissenting opinions in notable cases such as Furman v. Georgia, Bowers v. Hardwick, and DeShaney v. Winnebago County.

James French (murderer)

James D. French (ca. 1936 – 10 August 1966) was an American criminal who was the last person executed under Oklahoma's death penalty laws prior to Furman v. Georgia, which suspended capital punishment in America from 1972 until 1976. He was also the only prisoner executed in the United States that year. Already in prison for life for killing a motorist who had picked him up from hitchhiking in 1958, allegedly French desired to die but lacked the courage to commit suicide; and so instead murdered his cellmate, apparently to compel the state to execute him. French subsequently "resisted all efforts to spare his life" and walked calmly into the execution chamber at 10:00 p.m; the Associated Press reporter at the scene wrote that "James Donald French got what he demanded: death in the electric chair," and commented that "He faced death with the same cockiness he faced life." In later years, French's last words before his death by electric chair would be said to have been "How's this for your headline? 'French Fries'". The story appeared as early as 1977 in The Book of Lists, but contemporaneous accounts of the execution mentioned only one of the "cocky" inmate's remarks, and reported that when prison warden Ray Page asked if French had any last words, "French replied: 'Everything's already been said.'" This was the last execution by electric chair in the United States before Furman v. Georgia; after the moratorium on capital punishment was lifted, the first electrocution was John Spenkelink in 1979 in Florida. Gary Gilmore was the first execution carried out by firing squad 1977 in Utah.

List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 408

This is a list of all the United States Supreme Court cases from volume 408 of the United States Reports:

Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972)

Gelbard v. United States, 408 U.S. 41 (1972)

Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92 (1972)

Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104 (1972)

United States v. Byrum, 408 U.S. 125 (1972)

Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972)

Mancusi v. Stubbs, 408 U.S. 204 (1972)

Combs v. United States, 408 U.S. 224 (1972) (per curiam)

Kois v. Wisconsin, 408 U.S. 229 (1972) (per curiam)

Beecher v. Alabama, 408 U.S. 234 (1972) (per curiam)

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) (per curiam)

Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972)

United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501 (1972)

Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972)

Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972)

Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972)

Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972)

Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972)

Moore v. Illinois, 408 U.S. 786 (1972)

Port of Portland v. United States, 408 U.S. 811 (1972)

Stewart v. Massachusetts, 408 U.S. 845 (1972) (per curiam)

Rosenfeld v. New Jersey, 408 U.S. 901 (1972)

Lists of people executed in Texas

The list of people executed by the U.S. state of Texas, with the exception of 1819-1849, is divided into periods of 10 years.

Since 1819, 1,316 individuals (all but nine of whom have been men) have been executed in Texas as of April 24, 2019.

Between 1819 and 1923, 390 people were executed by hanging in the county where the trial took place. During the American Civil War, three Confederate deserters and a man convicted of attempted rape were executed by firing squad. The law was changed in 1923 requiring executions to be carried out in the electric chair at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. From 1924 to 1964, 361 people were executed in this way. After an 18-year gap following Furman v. Georgia, executions were resumed following new capital-punishment laws passed by the State of Texas (and upheld in Gregg v. Georgia, which also included a companion case from Texas), among them changing the method of execution to lethal injection.

Since 1982 and as of April 24, 2019, 561 individuals (all of whom were convicted of murder) have been executed by lethal injection at the Huntsville Unit. The number is over four times as many as Virginia (the state with the second-highest total of executions in the post-Gregg era) and over 37 times as many as California (the state with the largest number of death row inmates; California has not executed anyone since January 2006, and has a moratorium on capital punishment as of March 2019).

Maynard v. Cartwright

Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356 (1988), is a United States Supreme Court case in which a unanimous Court found that the "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" standard for the application of the death penalty as defined by the Eighth Amendment was too vague. As such, Oklahoma's law was overturned based on Furman v. Georgia (1972).

Justice Brennan announced in a characteristic concurrence, joined by Justice Marshall, that he would adhere to his view that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

McGautha v. California

McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183 (1971), is a criminal case heard by the United States Supreme Court, in which the Court held that the lack of legal standards by which juries imposed the death penalty was not an unconstitutional violation of the due process clause portion of the Eighth Amendment. Justice Harlan wrote that writing rules for jury death penalty decisions was beyond current human ability. The context was public and philosophical scrutiny of the unequal application of the death penalty, especially in that blacks who killed whites were much more likely to have a death penalty imposed. McGautha was superseded one year later by Furman v. Georgia, which held that sentencing discretion must be narrowed "so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action."

William Henry Furman

William Henry Furman is an American convicted felon who was the central figure in Furman v. Georgia (1972), the case in which the United States Supreme Court outlawed most uses of the death penalty in the United States.

Witherspoon v. Illinois

Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), was a U.S. Supreme Court case where the court ruled that a state statute providing the state unlimited challenge for cause of jurors who might have any objection to the death penalty gave too much bias in favor of the prosecution.

The Court said,

Whatever else might be said of capital punishment, it is at least clear that its imposition by a hanging jury cannot be squared with the Constitution. The State of Illinois has stacked the deck against the petitioner. To execute this death sentence would deprive him of his life without due process of law.

The decision in this case would cause the Supreme Court of California to order a retrial on the penalty phase in the 1972 case of California v. Anderson, and when the case was heard for the third time, would find the imposition of the death penalty was unconstitutional on the grounds of the penalty being cruel or unusual punishment, in violation of the State Constitution. The decision would become national in scale when the U.S. Supreme Court also in 1972 ruled in Furman v. Georgia that all death penalty cases were in violation of the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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