Furman v. Georgia was a landmark case argued by LDF that ended the death penalty in the United States in 1972. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in LDF’s favor and found the death penalty as then administered constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The decision was the country’s first and only nationwide halt to executions, and forced states to rethink their laws going forward to ensure that the death penalty would not be administered in a discriminatory manner. Unfortunately, this decision proved to be only temporary as Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reinstated its acceptance and use.
The Furman v. Georgia decision consolidated three cases, Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia, and Branch v. Texas, brought before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty. Each justice issued a separate opinion in the case. The Court’s ruled that Georgia’s death penalty statute that gave juries complete discretion over sentencing could result in arbitrary application of the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment. The decision resulted in the commutation of the sentences 629 individuals on death row.
Led by LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, LDF’s legal strategy brought down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. LDF argued that the death penalty was arbitrarily and disproportionately imposed on marginalized groups, including Black Americans. LDF’s brief laid out a powerful argument for the abolition of capital punishment as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. LDF also identified the persistent racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty.
Read LDF’s statement on the 50th anniversary of Furman v. Georgia here.
Whether administered by federal or state government, the death penalty is infected with fundamental flaws, including persistent racial discrimination, and human error. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Since 1973, at least 189 people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. 100 of the death row exonerees are Black.
Racism is inextricable from capital punishment. The death penalty has its roots in slavery, lynchings, white vigilantism, and the racial inequities in sentencing persist to this day.
LDF releases a quarterly report tracking death row populations by state, as well as other statistics pertaining to capital punishment in the United States. Read the reports here.