This article was last modified on September 18, 2018.

50 Year Flashback: Furman v Georgia

(The following was used as an introductory background to the Furman v Georgia case for a discussion group, with a few sample discussion questions.)

The debate about the death penalty in Western society goes back at least as far as the Bible. In Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed.” In contrast, Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, which implies that retribution is wrong. This debate continues today, 2000 years later.

On August 11, 1967, an illiterate, epileptic, and mentally handicapped man named William Furman was burglarizing the home of William Micke. Caught in the act, Furman fell and discharged his weapon into the darkness, accidentally killing Micke. Following a one-day trial, he was sentenced to death. The defense appealed, creating the case Furman v Georgia.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the death penalty was not applied fairly across the board (violating “equal protection” under Amendment 14). Justice Stewart thought the punishment was random in who was executed and said, “These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual” (violating Amendment 8). Justice Brennan thought it violated human dignity, while Justice Blackmun said it was “antagonistic to any sense of reverence for life”. Regardless of his personal feelings, though, Blackmun said the death penalty should be decided by Congress, not the courts.

The majority invoked the legal concept of “evolving standards of decency”, saying the current (1968) standard would be opposed to executions. Justice Powell rejected “evolving standards”, believing that the standard was set in 1791, and no one in that time would call death “cruel and unusual”. Further, if 40 states allowed it, how could it not be seen as the “standard”?

The decision reduced all 589 outstanding death sentences to life in prison. This included even the most notorious offenders, such as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.

Many thought the decision was permanent, but it wasn’t. In 1976, Gregg v. Georgia reinstated the death penalty. New laws separated the trial phase from the sentencing phase and made any death sentence be sent to appeal automatically so irregularities could be addressed immediately.

Discrepancies still exist. From 1976-2005, 34.1% of those executed were black, though African-Americans only make up 12% of the population. In Georgia, the difference was even greater: 27% of the population, but 81% of death row inmates. (Assuming murder rates are the same across racial lines, this would suggest that blacks are being executed at a proportionately higher rate.) In general, executions were far more common in the South. The global trend has been to outlaw the death penalty. Around the world, the United States is in the minority as far as the death penalty is concerned. The only countries outside of Africa and the Middle East that still use it are India and Japan.

Discussion: Does the death penalty deter murder? Does it provide relief to the victim’s family? Should the decision be left up to the victim’s family rather than the court? Should there be an age limit? Does mental illness matter? Have the “standards of decency” changed?

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “50 Year Flashback: Furman v Georgia”

  1. Drew Hunkins Says:

    It’s been pretty well proven in the social sciences that capital punishment does not deter homicide.

    The problem with the death penalty is that it presumes that the United States criminal justice [sic] system is infallible, when in fact it’s very fallible indeed.

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