Death Penalty Decision Alters American Justice
On June 29, 1972, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Furman v. Georgia. This disjointed 5-4 decision threw the death penalty process into confusion in the United States.
The case came from the conviction of William Henry Furman, who shot a homeowner during the commission of a burglary. Furman was convicted of felony murder and was sentenced to death. The facts of the case were not really in doubt. Furman confessed to killing the man. In one statement he shot the victim accidently and, in another statement, he admitted to shooting the victim recklessly. Regardless of intent he was still guilty of felony murder.
He fought his death sentence all the way to the Supreme Court. He argued that in Georgia, the imposition of the death penalty was inconsistence and arbitrary. Statistics were shown that black defendants were more likely to receive death sentences, and that there was little codified rhyme or reason to its use.
Five of the Justices decided in favor of Furman, but all differed in their rationale. All five affirming Justices wrote their own opinions. Justices Stewart, White, and Douglas wrote opinions that indicated there needed to be a less arbitrary process for imposing death sentences. They did not argue that the death penalty itself was cruel and unusual, just that the process in sentencing it was arbitrary and capricious. Justices Brennan and Marshall wrote opinions that argued that the imposition of death was cruel and unusual in contemporary society. They favored the end of the death penalty.
This decision threw the criminal justice system into turmoil. Was the death penalty now illegal, or was there just a moratorium until stricter rules could be implemented? Current death sentences clearly could not be imposed, and some 630 people on death row around the country had their sentences commuted.
Over the next four years, 37 States changed their death penalty statues to ensure a fairer process. Several laws that required bifurcated trials, with separate guilt-innocence and sentencing phases, and imposing rules to guide the discretion of juries and judges in imposing death sentences, were upheld in a series of Supreme Court decisions in 1976, beginning with Gregg v. Georgia. The death penalty was back on the table in the United States.
As for William Henry Furman, his death penalty was never imposed. He was released on parole in 1984 and, like most parolees, he reoffended. He was convicted of burglary in 2004 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was paroled again in 2016 and is currently in his 80s. Hopefully his burglary days are behind him.
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