Furman v. Georgia
The landmark case of Furman v. Georgia (1972) temporarily stopped all death penalty sentences in the country in an unusual turn for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Furman was a consolidation of several cases in which defendants were sentenced to death for double felonies – rape during the commission of a robbery, and second-degree murder during a robbery. It was this variety that bothered the Court: they considered the arbitrary and nonstandard sentencing to be cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
As a result of Furman, the Court imposed a moratorium on the death penalty that didn’t end until more than 35 states revised their sentencing statutes to standardize the imposition of the most serious penalty.
The case against William Furman was combined with three other death penalty cases that demonstrated the variety of ways the death penalty was levied as punishment. All had similar circumstances, yet the Justices could not agree what should be done. More than one wanted to declare the punishment cruel and unusual, and others noted that defendants of color were most likely to receive the death penalty sentence than white defendants. The court’s compromise was to have a moratorium on future death penalty sentences.
The Court’s instruction was that states must make it possible for judges or juries to take a defendant’s character into consideration when sentencing, and that sentencing guidelines must be objective and must be reviewed automatically by an appellate court.
Almost three dozen states complied with the new guidelines within a few years. The case Gregg v. Georgia sought to have the death penalty declared unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment the court instead reviewed societal norms and decided there was plenty of support to continue allowing the death penalty for the worst cases.
In the end, Furman was not put to death by the state for his crimes.