Furman v. Georgia

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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In Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down three death sentences, finding that they constituted CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Hailed, at the time, as a victory for opponents of the death penalty, Furman actually helped states rewrite their death penalty laws to pass constitutional muster.

The path to Furman began in 1962 with ROBINSON V. CALIFORNIA, 370 U.S. 660, 82 S. Ct. 1417, 8 L. Ed. 2d 758. In Robinson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause could be applied to the states through the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. Opponents of the death penalty saw this ruling as an opportunity to litigate the constitutionality of state death penalty cases in federal court.

Furman centered on the convictions and death sentences of three African American men: William Henry Furman was convicted in Georgia for murder, Lucius Jackson was convicted in Georgia for rape, and Elmer Branch was convicted in Texas for rape. The juries in each of the cases were not mandated by law to vote for the death penalty, nor were they given specific criteria to evaluate in making their penalty decisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion, on a 5?4 vote to reverse the death sentences. The Court typically issues its decisions with a majority opinion written and signed by one the justices. On rare occasions the Court will issue a per curiam decision, which takes the form of a brief, unsigned opinion. A per curiam decision signifies that the Court was deeply divided over the reasons that went into its ultimate decision to either affirm or reverse the lower court.

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All nine justices wrote a separate opinion to articulate their reasoning. Although five justices voted to reverse the death sentences, their concurring opinions revealed that it was a shaky coalition. Justices WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR., and THURGOOD MARSHALL doubted that any application of the death penalty could avoid being a cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Douglas concluded that the death penalty was disproportionately applied to people who were poor and socially disadvantaged. This disproportion suggested that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment must be applied to strike down the death penalty because any inequality of...

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