Appellant: William Henry Furman
Appellee: State of Georgia
Appellant's Claim: That the Georgia death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments.
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Anthony G. Amsterdam
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Dorothy T. Beasley, Assistant Attorney General of Georgia
Justices for the Court: William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, Warren E. Burger, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist
Date of Decision: June 29, 1972
Decision: Georgia's death penalty statute was unconstitutional.
Significance: Furman said death penalty laws that allow random, racial results are unconstitutional.
On the night of August 11, 1967, 29-year-old William Joseph Micke, Jr., came home from work to his wife and five children in Savannah, Georgia. He went to bed around midnight. Two hours later, the Mickes were awakened by strange noises in the kitchen. Thinking that one of his children was sleepwalking, William Micke went to the kitchen to investigate.
Micke found 26-year-old William Henry Furman in the kitchen. Furman was a poor, uneducated, mentally ill African American who had broken into the house and was carrying a gun. When he saw Micke, Furman fled the house, shooting Micke as he left. The bullet hit Micke in the chest, killing him instantly.
Micke's family immediately called the police. Within minutes, the police searched the neighborhood and found Furman still carrying his gun. Furman was charged with murder. Before Furman's trial, the court committed Furman to the Georgia Central State Hospital for psychological examination. After studying Furman, the hospital decided he was mentally ill and psychotic.
Furman's trial was on September 20, 1968. Because he was poor, Furman got a poor man's trial. His court-appointed lawyer, B. Clarence Mayfield, received the regular court-approved fee of just $150. Furman testified in his own defense. He said that when Micke caught him in the kitchen, he started to leave the house backwards and tripped over a wire. When Furman tripped, the gun fired. Furman said he did not mean to kill anyone.
Although murder cases can be complicated, Furman's trial lasted just one day. The court rejected Furman's insanity plea and the jury found Furman guilty of murder. Although the evidence suggested Furman killed Micke accidentally, the jury sentenced Furman to death.
Furman appealed his conviction and sentence. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed both on April 24, 1969. On May 3, however, the court stayed (delayed) Furman's execution so Furman could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because Furman's case attracted a lot of publicity, several lawyers, including Anthony G. Amsterdam, joined Mayfield to help with the appeal.
Before the Supreme Court on January 17, 1972, Amsterdam argued that the death penalty in Georgia violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment says the federal government may not use "cruel and unusual punishments." States, including Georgia, must obey the Eighth Amendment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Amsterdam said the death penalty was "cruel and unusual" for several reasons. At the time, juries received no guidance about choosing the death penalty. They simply listened to the evidence on guilt or innocence and decided whether the defendant deserved to die. Studies showed that juries acted randomly when choosing the death penalty. In cases that were similar, some defendants got the death penalty while others just went to prison.
Other studies showed that defendants who were black, uneducated, poor, or mentally ill received the death penalty more often than those who were white, educated, wealthy, and mentally healthy. Amsterdam said these random, racial, unfair results made the death penalty cruel and unusual.
Supreme Court Rules
With a 5 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Furman's conviction. Five of the justices agreed that Furman's death sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The justices, however, could not agree on a reason for their decision. All five justices in the majority, then, wrote separate opinions explaining the result.
Justice William O. Douglas wrote an opinion that best explained the Court's decision. Justice Douglas reviewed the history of the death penalty in England and America. He noted that under English law, the death penalty was unfair if it was applied unevenly to minorities, outcasts, and unpopular groups. Douglas decided the death penalty in the United States is "unusual" under the Eighth Amendment if it discriminates against a defendant because of his "race, religion, wealth, social position, or class."
Douglas then reviewed many studies about how the death penalty was applied in America. He decided that African Americans and the poor, sick, and uneducated members of society received the death penalty most often. Douglas believed this happened because juries had no guidance when applying the death penalty. This allowed juries to act on their prejudices by targeting unpopular groups with the death penalty. Douglas suggested death penalty laws would have to be rewritten to prevent such results.
Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall also wrote opinions. They believed the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment in all cases and should be outlawed forever. Four justices wrote dissenting opinions, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said if the public did not like the death penalty or thought it was being used unfairly, they could rewrite the law or get rid of it altogether.
Furman did not outlaw the death penalty. It just required states to prevent random, racial, unfair results by giving juries guidance to apply the death penalty fairly. After Furman, most states rewrote their death penalty laws to do this. The new laws created a two-phase system for death penalty cases. In the first phase, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty of murder. In the second phase, the jury hears new evidence to decide if the defendant deserves the death penalty. The new laws gave juries guidance for making this decision. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Supreme Court said the new laws were valid under the Eighth Amendment. America was allowed to keep the death penalty.
Some people believe the death penalty is still unfair under the new laws. For the ninety-eight people executed in the United States in 1999, 104 of their victims were white while only fifteen of their victims were black. Death penalty opponents say this means the system treats whites better by punishing their attackers more severely. Death penalty supporters disagree. They say studies prove that criminals who get the death penalty are the ones who commit the worst murders, such as murder during rape, murdering children, and murdering more than one person.
Suggestions for further reading
Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.
Bragg, Rick. "Florida's Messy Executions Put the Electric Chair on Trial." New York Times, November 18, 1999.
"Death Penalty." Issues and Controversies on File. May 1, 1998.
Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Henson, Burt M., and Ross R. Olney. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty and the Constitution. New York: Franklin Watts, Ind., 1996.
Herda, D.J. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.
O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.
Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.
Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.
Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.
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