Furman v. Georgia | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Furman v. Georgia (1972) was a SCOTUS ruling that effectively made the death penalty unconstitutional; effectively overturned by Gregg v. Georgia 4 years later.

Furman v. Georgia was a landmark decision in the history of capital punishment in the United States. It was a culmination of a series of cases that challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty, and it had far-reaching implications for the administration of criminal justice in the country.

The case involved William Henry Furman, a 26-year-old African American man who was sentenced to death for murder in Georgia. Furman’s case was typical of many death penalty cases at the time. The evidence against him was circumstantial, and there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. The jury that convicted him was all-white, and Furman’s defense counsel was inexperienced and ineffective. Despite these problems, Furman was sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia was based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The Court found that the death penalty was often imposed based on factors such as race, socio-economic status, and geography rather than the nature of the crime or the character of the defendant.

The decision in Furman v. Georgia effectively halted the use of the death penalty in the United States. Between 1967 and 1972, the Supreme Court struck down all death penalty statutes in the country, deeming them unconstitutional. In the wake of the Furman decision, many states scrambled to revise their death penalty statutes in order to comply with the Court’s ruling.

However, the ruling in Furman v. Georgia was short-lived. Just four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court upheld a revised death penalty statute in Georgia that addressed the concerns raised in Furman. The Court held that the new statute provided adequate safeguards against the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty and that the death penalty itself was not inherently unconstitutional.

Despite the reinstatement of the death penalty in many states, the legacy of Furman v. Georgia continues to be felt in the administration of criminal justice in the United States. The decision drew attention to the problems of racial and socioeconomic bias in the criminal justice system and the need for safeguards against the arbitrary and discriminatory imposition of punishment. It also contributed to a broader rethinking of the death penalty and its role in society, with many advocates calling for its abolition.

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Last Modified:  04/08/2023

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