Cases in Brief: Furman v. Georgia with Carol Steiker

Professor Steiker discusses the landmark case that declared the death penalty unconstitutional

In this installment of “Cases in Brief,” Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker ’86, an expert on capital punishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, discusses Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 landmark Supreme Court decision that declared the death penalty unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

The ruling effectively nullified all existing death sentences and halted all executions for a four-year period.

In part one (above), Steiker gives some of the backstory leading up to the Furman decision. In the 1960s, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund organized a nationwide campaign to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty in hundreds of cases. The movement effectively prevented states and the federal government from implementing the death penalty during the six years leading up to Furman. Ultimately, no executions took place in the United States from 1966-1976, the longest period in U.S. history.

Part two looks at the process by which the Court made its ruling, a rare case in which all nine justices issued separate opinions, as well as the decision’s immediate and long-term impacts.

Though seemingly overturned, the Furman decision ushered in an era of heightened regulation. States went back to the drawing board to create new death penalty statutes that would hold up under constitutional scrutiny. In 1976, the Court decided in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty was constitutional if juries were given standards to guide them in their sentencing deliberations. The decision in Furman v. Georgia ultimately led many states to abolish the death penalty altogether.

Steiker is the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Her most recent books, written and edited in collaboration with her brother Jordan Steiker ’88, professor and co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas Austin School of Law, include “Comparative Capital Punishment,” and “Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment.”