Capital Punishment on Trial
Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America
David M. Oshinsky
In his first book since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Polio: An American Story, renowned historian David Oshinsky takes a new and closer look at the Supreme Court's controversial and much-debated stances on capital punishment-in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia.
Career criminal William Furman shot and killed a homeowner during a 1967 burglary in Savannah, Georgia. Because it was a "black-on-white" crime in the racially troubled South, it also was an open-and-shut case. The trial took less than a day, and the nearly all-white jury rendered a death sentence. Aided by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Furman's African-American attorney, Bobby Mayfield, doggedly appealed the verdict all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1972 overturned Furman's sentence by a narrow 5-4 vote, ruling that Georgia's capital punishment statute, and by implication all other state death-penalty laws, was so arbitrary and capricious as to violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."
“Oshinsky shows how modern death penalty law is chaotic (if not incoherent) owing in part to cracks in its foundation.”
—Journal of Southern History
“A masterful synthesis of the vast historiography on America’s modern death penalty, focused around the Furman v. Georgia decision, which in 1972 temporarily suspended the country's ultimate punishment. Narratives about the crimes and biographies of the primary actors make this history live and breathe, while careful analysis of the legal strategies and opinions clearly tells the complex story of capital punishment in the United States.”
—HistorianSee all reviews...
“An interesting, thorough, and concise little volume that will be useful for the general reader, the legal history buff, the scholar, and—perhaps most important of all—the active attorney who is faced with the great responsibility of defending or prosecuting a defendant in a capital case. . . . The book simply deserves to be read.”
—Georgia Historical Quarterly
“Oshinsky gracefully uses the personal tales of attorneys, victims, and death row inmates to create a thoroughly researched and well-written book that will serve as a firm foundation for a clearer understanding of the development of capital punishment litigation in this country.”
—The Federal Lawyer
“Deals with a very important issue in a clear, accessible, and concise way. . . . Like the others in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society series, this book will prompt lively discussion among students in American legal history courses and among educated general readers.”
“A brief, masterly synthesis of existing scholarship about Americans’ efforts to interpret and implement the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. . . . Oshinsky’s superb synthesis enriches our understanding of Americans’ struggle with the death penalty and should be widely read.”
—Journal of American History
“A stellar addition to the Landmark Law Cases and American Society series from the University Press of Kansas. Despite its subtitle, Oshinsky’s book treats readers to much more than an account of a single court case. . . . In this short book, Oshinsky manages to use what on the surface appears to be a single, simple case, Furman v. Georgia, to demonstrate how America has repeatedly come full circle on the death penalty.”
—Law Library Journal
“A compact and readable introduction to some of the most important moments and cases in the history of the death penalty.”
“A compact yet richly detailed account of the United States Supreme Court’s tortuous struggle with the death penalty....Oshinsky has written a compact and rewarding synopsis of this frustrating but critical issue. ... His careful scholarship and breadth of detail paint a troubling picture of the high court’s convoluted capital jurisprudence.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“A tight and compulsively readable account of the intersection of morality and legality in the jurisprudence of capital punishment.”
“Oshinsky tells a compelling story while putting that story in its full context. His book is both a gripping account of Furman v. Georgia and a complete survey of the American experience with the death penalty over the past half century.”
—Stuart Banner, author of The Death Penalty: An American History
“A meticulously researched and elegantly written account by a masterful storyteller. Oshinsky uses this landmark case as a lens through which to view America’s long history of state killing. . . . Filled with striking insights.”
—Austin Sarat, author of When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American ConditionSee fewer reviews...
Furman effectively, if temporarily, halted capital punishment in the United States. Every death row inmate across the nation was resentenced to life in prison. The decision, however, did not rule the death penalty per se to be unconstitutional; rather, it struck down the laws that currently governed its application, leaving the states free to devise new ones that the Court might find acceptable. And this is exactly what happened. In the coming years, the Supreme Court would uphold an avalanche of state legislation endorsing the death penalty. Capital punishment would return stronger than ever, with many more defendants sentenced to death and eventually executed.
Oshinsky demonstrates the troubling roles played by race and class and region in capital punishment. And he concludes by considering the most recent Supreme Court death-penalty cases involving minors and the mentally ill, as well as the impact of international opinion. Compact and engaging, Oshinsky's masterful study reflects a gift for empathy, an eye for the telling anecdote and portrait, and a talent for clarifying the complex and often confusing legal issues surrounding capital punishment.