Most Death Penalty Statutes Declared Unconstitutional

1972

The U.S. Supreme Court decides three cases known as a group as Furman v. Georgia. A majority of the Court finds that Georgia’s death penalty statute, which gives the jury complete discretion in sentencing, imposes “cruel and unusual” punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment.

There is not a majority opinion on exactly why the statute is “cruel and unusual,” although three justices say the death penalty is too arbitrary (with poor and minority defendants tending to get death sentences more than rich, white defendants). Two other justices say that death is always a cruel and unusual punishment. The Furman opinion strikes Georgia’s death penalty and those like it in 40 other states, affecting 600 death-row inmates.

Death penalty advocates work to rewrite state laws to address concerns about the arbitrary use of the death penalty. Some states create sentencing guidelines for judges and juries; others require the death penalty when a defendant is convicted of certain crimes. In all, 35 states revise their laws.