Executions ceased in the U.S. after June 1967 pending examination of legal issues by the Supreme Court. To build wider support for their attack on the constitutionality of capital punishment, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educa- tional Fund (LDF) attorneys who argued Furman v. Georgia (1972) had broadened their focus from racial discrimination to arbitrariness more generally (Mandery, 2013). The Furman decision involved three black petitioners who had been sentenced to death; two were convicted of rape and the other of murder (a second murder case from California was initially part of the group, but that state’s supreme court ruled its capital punishment law unconstitutional earlier in 1972). After reviewing the facts of the cases, the court ruled that the administration of capital punishment at the time violated the Eighth Amendment’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amend- ment’s provision of equal protection of the law. The court based its ruling on the fact that capital punishment was administered in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner at the time because “juries (or judges, as the case may be) have practically untrammeled discretion to let an accused live or insist that he die” (p. 250). Certain justices realized that those with less power (i.e., African Americans and other minorities) in society were given death sentences and executed while those with more power (i.e., whites) received prison sentences. Justice Douglas wrote that the capital process was “pregnant with discrimination” and cited a statement by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who said, “It is the poor, the sick, the ignorant, the powerless, and the hated who are executed” (p. 251). In fact, those with power in society “are given prison terms, not sentenced to death” (p. 252). Justice Stuart, who also concurred with the opinion, compared receiving a sentence of death to getting struck by lightning. He concluded that the current administration of capital punishment was in direct violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because it was “so wantonly and freakishly imposed” (p. 310). Justice Brennan, who along with Justice Marshall thought capital sentences were constitu- tionally unacceptable as a form of punishment, agreed that death sentences were not fairly applied. Justice Brennan also suggested that there was no rational explanation for why such a small number of people were sentenced to death, while many who committed the same crimes went to prison. There- fore, there must be irrational reasons, such as racial biases, that explain why only a small percentage of those eligible actually receive the death penalty.
The Furman ruling brought about a temporary moratorium on capital sentencing in the United States, allowing the more than 550 inmates awaiting execution on death row at the time to have their sentences commuted to life in prison (Bedau, 1997). The backlash against the ruling motivated several state legislatures to amend and write new capital sentencing procedures that would meet the constitutional requirements of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Four years after Furman , the
Kristie R. Blevins and Kevin I. Minor