In Furman V. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed.2d. 346, (1972) the issue brought before the Supreme Court was, “Did the death penalty, as it was administered at the time violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and certiorari was granted but limited to the following question. “Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these three cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?”
Furman, a black, 26 year old, confessed that he did not know that he had shot or killed the homeowner; all he was trying to do was escape from the house he had set out to burglarize, and did not know that anyone had died until he was picked up by the police. State law in Georgia, at that time, made Furman eligible for the death penalty because the shooting took place during the commission of a felony. It took the jury less than two hours to convict him of murder, as well as sentencing Furman to death.
In reversing the Georgia Supreme Court by a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held, “. . . the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas stated, “In a nation committed to equal protection of the laws there is no permissible “caste” aspect of law enforcement. Yet we know that the discretion of judges and juries in imposing the death penalty enables the penalty to be selectively applied . . .” Douglas believed that juries lacked the guidance needed, and arbitrarily applied the death penalty to target certain populations, by acting on their personal prejudices. Justice Douglas goes on to say that the Eighth Amendment necessitates state legislatures to draft laws that are “evenhanded, non-selective, and nonarbitrary,” as well as saying that judges must see to it that these laws are not applied “sparsely, selectively and spottily to unpopular groups.” Justice Potter Stewart concurred in his opinion and went so far as to call the death sentence one that is one that is “so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.” Writing for the dissent, Chief Justice Warren Burger writes, “Capital punishment is authorized by statute in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and in the federal courts for commission of certain crimes. . . . In looking for reliable indicata of contemporary attitude, none more trustworthy has been advanced.”
Although the court did not rule the death penalty itself unconstitutional, it did find its use to be arbitrary and capricious. For the first time in its long history that the Supreme Court had decided a case against capital punishment and the death sentence was on hold, while state...