Summary of Furman v. Georgia
Relevant Facts: Furman was burglarizing a home and was caught doing so by a member of that household. Furman attempted to leave the home and fell. Furman was carrying a loaded firearm which went off at the time of the fall and killed a resident of the home. Furman was convicted of murder as a result of the incident and sentenced to death. Although Furman did not intend to kill the resident, the fact that he nevertheless killed that resident during the commission of a felony, was an aggravating factor, and the one in particular which made him eligible for the death penalty. Furman appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court on the grounds that his punishment constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Furman’s case was also ruled on in conjunction with two other cases which dealt with the applicability of imposing the death penalty for those convicted of committing non-lethal offenses such as rape.
Issue: The legal question presented was whether the imposition and execution of the death penalty in such cases qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Holding: The Supreme Court held that Furman’s rights had been violated.
Majority Opinion Reasoning: The Court reasoned that the rights’ violation stemmed from the fact that there seemed to be a lack of uniformity across states with regard to how people are sentenced to the death penalty and then eventually executed. The Court listed several factors that were damning, such as the apparent propensity of courts to sentence blacks to death disproportionately to whites.
Dissenting Opinion: Chief Justice Burger and Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, and William H. Rehnquist argued that capital punishment (the death penalty) had always been a viable punishment option implicitly allowed by the Constitution, and up to the discretion of states on an individual level.
Conclusion: The case was critically important because following it a moratorium on capital punishment across the country was imposed. It was not until 1976 that the moratorium ceased. The ruling compelled states to change their death penalty and criminal procedure laws to ensure that death penalty cases were based on commonly known procedure and punitive deterrents rather than arbitrariness.