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Furman v. Georgia

Furman Sentenced To Death

Under Georgia law, Furman faced the death penalty. This was despite the fact that Furman had testified that his shooting of Micke was accidental:

I admit going to these folks' home and they did caught me in there and I was coming back out, backing up and there was a wire down there on the floor. I was coming out backwards and fell back and I didn't intend to kill nobody . . . The gun went off and I didn't know nothing about no murder until they arrested me, and when the gun went off I was down on the floor and I got up and ran. That's all to it.

Georgia's death penalty statute, however, permitted executions even for unintended killings. So long as Furman had broken into the Micke house illegally, it was irrelevant that his shooting was accidental since that shooting had caused Micke's death while Furman was committing a criminal act. The judge's instructions to the jury made this clear:

If you believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant broke and entered the dwelling of the deceased with intent to commit a felony or a larceny and that after so breaking and entering with such intent, the defendant killed the deceased in the manner set forth in the indictment, and if you find that such killing was the natural, reasonable and probable consequence of such breaking and entering, then I instruct you that under such circumstances, you would be authorized to convict the defendant of murder and this you would be authorized to do whether the defendant intended to kill the deceased or not.

The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Furman's conviction and death sentence on 24 April 1969, but on 3 May 1969 Chief Justice W. H. Duckworth stayed the execution so that Furman could file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. Furman was no longer represented solely by court-appointed counsel: his case had generated some publicity, and several lawyers were now handling his appeal.

On 17 January 1972 the parties argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The Court had agreed to hear the case to answer the legal question of whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The Court issued its decision 29 June 1972. By a narrow 5-4 majority, the justices voted to overturn Furman's conviction on the grounds that in his case the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The justices were deeply divided over how to interpret the Eighth Amendment, however. All nine justices filed separate opinions stating their legal reasoning, which is highly unusual. For the most part, Justice William O. Douglas' opinion spoke for the five-member majority.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Furman v. Georgia - Significance, Furman Sentenced To Death, Court Severely Restricts Death Penalty, Jackson And Branch, Related Cases