Furman v Georgia, 1972

The debate surrounding the imposition of death penalty for grave offences had been a divisive issue in the American political realm.  The 1972 verdict on the case Furman v Georgia is a landmark event in the history of the nation’s judiciary.  The 5-4 verdict of the judges against its imposition had set a valuable precedent for states across the United States.  The five judges who argued and reasoned in support of their opposition to this form of punishment were Justices Brennan, Douglas, Stewart, White and Marshall.  They presented a very persuasive set of rationale to arrive at their inferences.  The five justices first pointed to some problematic areas with the concept of the death penalty and later expounded on how its implementation would undermine the integrity of the constitution of the United States.  Firstly, the following lines give a summary of the circumstances leading to the case:

Furman was convicted for the murder of the father of 5 children with the deployment of a gun, following the deceased’s discovery that the former had broken into his home with the intent of robbery.  Furman was also found guilty of forcible rape. Jackson was also convicted for rape during the course of the robbery. It was found that the act of rape was carried out by holding the sharp end of a scissors at the victim’s throat.  Branch is the other party found guilty of rape committed in the victim’s home. There was no evidence of any usage of weapon during the rape, but physical coercion and intimidation were employed by the perpetrators.  The rest of the essay forays into their stated reasons and their supported arguments on how the death penalty is not compatible with certain provisions in the constitution.

According to Justice Douglas, it is irresponsible on part of the judiciary to assume that the death penalty is not a cruel act, unless the method employed to execute the guilty would aggravate the suffering and pain.  It is also of Justice Douglas’ opinion that capital punishment “is not fastened to the obsolete, but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice.”  He also cites the majority opinion of the Trop v. Dulles case, that states that the choice of punishment must draw its meaning from the changing sensibilities of the broader demography and should conform to the spirit of progress and sophistication that is the sigh of a progressive society.  Further, Justice Douglas points to how death penalty in this particular case would violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  He analyses the origins of the Eighth Amendment, which traces back to the English Bill of Rights of 1969 and cites the meaning implied by its authors.  He subsequently concludes that this key piece of documentary evidence as to the intended meaning of harsh penalties does not lead to a conclusive case in support of the death penalty.  On the contrary its purpose was no more that to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory punishments of a harsh degree.

Let us now take a look at the statements made by Justice Brennan in concurring with four other judges.  In a poignant and often quoted judicial literature in American history, Justice Brennan expounds on the inhuman nature of capital punishment.  In his own words,

“More than the presence of pain, however, is comprehended in the judgment that the extreme severity of a punishment makes it degrading to the dignity of human beings. The barbaric punishments condemned by history, “punishments which inflict torture, such as the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron boot, the stretching of limbs and the like,” are, of course, “attended with acute pain and suffering.” (Supreme Court Collection, Cornell University Law School)

Further, he states that the chief reason why such atrocities were condemned in the past was because of our realization that there is more to it than infliction of pain.  Over and beyond that they treat human beings as animals would be treated in a slaughterhouse.  This, according to Justice Brennan is a breach of the basic vision of the nation’s Founding Fathers; one where even the most despicable of criminals have a right to command human dignity.

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