Furman v. Georgia: Case Brief, Summary & Decision

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

This lesson explores the application and use of the death penalty in modern times as the result of the landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia, a case in which several death row inmates appealed their sentences to the Court. The Supreme Court's majority ruled for the defendants in finding that the death penalty, if not cruel and unusual punishment, was applied unfairly in these cases.

The Dawn of the Modern Death Penalty: Furman v. Georgia

Imagine taking a class where the teacher could give you an F for one spelling error on a paper or for plagiarizing an entire essay. Would you consider getting an F for one misspelling on your paper fair? Or, would you argue that such a grading policy was cruel and unusual grading? In 1972, the Supreme Court found that the application of the death penalty was sentenced in a similar arbitrary fashion in their landmark ruling of Furman v. Georgia, which marks the dawn of the modern application of the death penalty in the United States.

The Case of William Furman

In 1972, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which halted the application of the death penalty across the nation and commuted the sentences of hundreds of death row inmates.

William Furman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He joined with Lucious Jackson and Elmer Branch, two convicted rapists also on death row, to petition the Supreme Court that their sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The Court, in considering the cases, was deeply divided on the reasons why they ruled and issued an unsigned, short ruling, or per curium opinion in which the justices overturned the sentences of Furman, Jackson, and Branch. This was because the death penalty was found to have been handed out capriciously and arbitrarily in their cases. Each Justice then wrote separate opinions on the appropriateness of the death penalty in modern society.

The ruling did not strike down the death penalty in all cases but instead added a restriction on its use as a sentence. After Furman v. Georgia, 37 states passed new statutes to regulate the death penalty in its application, such as limiting it to specific crimes and considering mitigating and aggravating circumstance, as well as creating judicial oversight of the application of the penalty. Furman v. Georgia is the landmark ruling that established the current debate over the death penalty and would be challenged and upheld four years later in Gregg v. Georgia when inmates sentenced under the guidelines set out by the Furman ruling were reviewed.

The Majority Opinion

Justice Potter Stewart
Potter Stewart

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