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Furman v. Georgia

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that capital punishment as commonly practiced in 1972 constituted cruel and unusual punishment and thus violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


By the late 1960's the majority of Americans opposed the death penalty. The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led a legal crusade aimed at either reforming or eliminating the use of executions. In McGautha v. California (1971), the Supreme Court rejected the LDF's argument against the imposition of the death penalty without jury guidelines and a bifurcated trial. The next year, nevertheless, the LDF reappeared before the Court and challenged the death sentences of William Furman and two other defendants. At the time, six hundred prisoners were on death row. A majority of five justices endorsed a short per curiam opinion overturning the death penalty statute of Georgia, but there was no opinion for the majority. In fact, all nine justices wrote separate opinions, totaling some 243 pages. Only two justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall held that capital punishment was inherently unconstitutional. They both argued that the punishment was degrading to human dignity and that it was both unnecessary and ineffective as a deterrent to crime. In contrast, the other three justices of the majority refused to rule on the legality of capital punishment itself, but they found that the absence of clear standards for juries and judges resulted in arbitrary application of the death penalty. The four dissenters, all appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, emphasized American traditions, the Court's precedents, and the importance of federalism. Following the Furman decision, thirty-five state legislatures rewrote their capital punishment statutes in an attempt to satisfy the Court's concerns. Many observers speculated that the Court would probably not approve of the revisions. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), however, a 7-2 majority of the justices found that Georgia's revamped statute satisfied the requirements of the Constitution.