Furman v. Georgia

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Furman v. Georgia


In this Furman v. Georgia case, the United State Supreme court declared that capital punishment was very unconstitutional. Five justices supported this ruling since they also believed that it was good to ban capital punishment in the country (Smith, 2008). One of them was Mr. Douglas who said that capital punishment was a problem since the punishment itself was discriminatory in its context. He argued that the announcement of a death penalty on a person would be highly incontestable if it discriminated against a person due to his race, wealth, religion or social class (Smith 2008). He therefore considered death penalty extremely unacceptable, and in contrary to the outlines of the constitution due to the discriminative nature at which this judgement was passed and the execution carried out.

The background of the case

It was on 11th August, 1967 at night when Micke William Jr., 29 years old, had come from work to his house. He had a wife and five children living in Savannah, Georgia (Smith, 2008). It was around midnight, two hours after arriving in the house, when the Micke awoke from some strange noises and screams that were coming from the kitchen. William initially thought that one of his Children was sleepwalking.  Therefore, he went into the kitchen to find out if he was the one and get him back to the house. To his amazement, Micke found Henry Furman who was in the kitchen. One thing is that Furman was an uneducated, very poor and mentally incapacitated person; he was an African American and he had broken into the kitchen and had a gun with him (Smith 2008). When Furman saw Micke he fled the house and tried to shoot Micke as he was leaving; the bullet penetrated in Micke’s chest killing him at the spot. Following this incident, Micke's family members called the police immediately. In a few minutes’ time, the police came and searched the entire neighborhood and as they were searching, they found Furman who was with his gun. Afterwards, Furman was arrested and charged for murdering Micke (Philip 1974). Before the trial of Furman, the court ordered that Furman should be taken to CCSH (Georgia Central State Hospital) to have a psychological examination. It was after medical examination that Furman was found to be psychotic and mentally ill.

During the day of trial, the appellant was William Henry and the appellee was the State of Georgia. The appellant’s claim was that the death penalty sentence was an unusual and cruel punishment under Amendments. The Chief Lawyer for Appellant was Anthony G. Amsterdam and Dorothy Beasley as the Appellee’s lawyer (Smith 2008). The Justices of the court were William Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, William Douglas, Byron White and Stewart Potter. The Justices Dissenting included Harry Blackman, Powell Lewis, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist (Philip 1974). The day for this case was on 29th June, the year 1972. The trial of Furman was held on 20th September, 1968 and since he was poor he got a fairly bad trial.

Although cases of murder are usually long and complicated, this trial lasted for only a day with the court rejecting Furman's insanity idea; the jury also declared that Furman was guilty for killing Micke and sentenced him to death despite the fact that all the evidences suggested that Micke’s death had occurred accidentally (Philip 1974). Shortly, Furman had to appeal for his conviction. On 3rd May, 1969, however, the court delayed his execution and because of that reason, Furman was not able to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States (James 2003). Since this Furman's case attracted so much publicity, quite a number of distinguished lawyers such as Anthony Amsterdam joined Mayfield in helping Furman with his appeal. On 17th January, 1972 before the hearing, Amsterdam declared that death penalty that had been passed in Georgia had violated the Constitution of United States (James 2003). According to the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, the government would not use unusual or cruel punishments to the people (Philip 1974).

Constitutional Questions Raised by the Case

It was quite clear that a number of constitutional issues were raised after this case. Justices White and Douglas expressed concerns on the unfairness with which sentences, especially death sentences, were being imposed in accordance to the existing laws of the land (Smith 2008). Also, Justices Marshall and Brennan argued that death sentences were extremely cruel according to the Eighth Amendment and lacking decency in an American society. Following these opinions from these two Justices, it was a duty to find out whether death penalties were being applied as under the existing statutes (Philip 1974). The Chief Justice, Burger, together with Justices Harry, Powell and William Rehnquist, all appointed by President Nixon held different views. They all argued that the application of capital punishment should be vital since it had for the past years been regarded appropriate according to the American tradition. This would be applied in dealing with serious criminal offences and other crimes as authorized by the Constitution of the country. The argument here was that the 14th Amendment of the Constitution gave reference to capital punishment (Smith 2008).

Summary of the Supreme Court’s Decision

Having a 5–4 decision, it was necessary for the Supreme Court to reverse the old Furman's conviction (Philip 1974). During the case, five justices agreed harmonious that Furman's death sentence conviction was an unusual and cruel punishment. However, the justices were unable to agree with a common reasoning for this decision. Since these five made a majority, it was what would influence the outcome of the case. Justice Douglas ended up writing an opinion that would come to explain the decision of the Court at his best (Philip 1974). It was after this case that Justice Douglas came up with a historic review of the death sentence penalty for both America and England (Philip 1974). The Justice noted that, according to the English law, the application of death sentencing was extremely unfair because it was applied only to the minorities, the outcasts and the smaller populations in the country. Justice Douglas therefore decided that death penalty was unusual and against God’s plan.

Constitutional significance of the Decision

After this case’s decision, there were issues that led to constitutional application when dealing with the death penalty. Later, Justice Douglas reviewed a number of studies concerning how the death sentences were being applied in countries such as America and even Britain (Smith 2008). He also noted it were the Black-Americans, the poor, the sick, the uneducated people in the society who had been receiving death penalties and not the Whites or the rich. He strongly believed that this was caused by the fact that the juries had no much guidance or understanding of the law when passing some of these death sentences (James, 2003). Because of this, they allowed the juries to use their prejudices in determining the outcome of such cases. Douglas therefore suggested that there was the need to rewrite such laws in order to avoid such a miscarriage of justice (Philip 1974).


The most important thing here is that this case did not ban the death penalty completely. It just ensured that there were no prejudices by preventing random, unfair and racial results through giving the jury a necessary guidance that it would apply when passing penalties. Later after this case, a number of states rewrote penalties on death. Such laws therefore created a double-phased system in determining cases on death penalties (James 2003). The jury was now to decide whether the defendant was guilty with irrefutable evidences; then the jury would listen to any new evidence in order to have a final decision on whether the defendant would deserve such a penalty.


Philip, M. (1974): Furman v. Georgia: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, F. (2008): The Supreme Court and the Politics of Death: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James, S. (2003): Slow Dancing with Death: New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Blaustein, A. (1993): Constitutions of the World: New York: Fred B. Rothman & Company.





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