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The imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in cases where it is inflicted discriminatorily upon members of racial minorities constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
In separate proceedings in Georgia state court, defendant Furman was convicted of murder and defendant Jackson was convicted of rape; defendant Branch was convicted of rape in Texas state court. Defendants, all of whom were African-American, were sentenced to death after a trial by juries which, under applicable state statutes, had discretion to determine whether or not to impose the death penalty. Defendants' sentences were affirmed on appeal, and they were granted writs of certiorari. Defendants argued that the death sentence was unconstitutional.
Did the imposition and carrying out of the death sentence in defendants' cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment in each case insofar as it left undisturbed the death sentence imposed, and the cases were remanded for further proceedings. In a per curiam opinion expressing the view of five members of the court, it was held that the imposition and carrying out of the death sentence in the present cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional because its application was discretionary, haphazard and discriminatory in that it was inflicted in a small number of the total possible cases and primarily against certain minority groups.
In concurring, Justice Douglas stated that it was cruel and unusual to apply the death penalty selectively to minorities whose numbers were few, who were outcasts of society, and who were unpopular, but whom society was willing to see suffer though it would not countenance general application of the same penalty across the boards, and that because of the discriminatory application of statutes authorizing the discretionary imposition of the death penalty, such statutes were unconstitutional in their operation.