In the history of Georgia, as well as in the rest of the United States, execution, or what is better known as the death penalty, was the result of a defendant found guilty in such crimes as murder and rape. In 1972, in the case of Furman v. Georgia the U.S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium, which is a delay or suspension of an activity or law, on the sentencing of Furman for capital punishment. They made the decision to end it in 1976, with the case of Gregg v. Georgia. Several court officials wrote that the use of capital punishment was cruel and unusual and it violated the 8th and the 14th amendments set by the U.S. Constitution. They also expressed similar concerns that it was racially targeting black defendants. In the Furman v. Georgia case, the resident awoke in the middle of the night to find William Henry Furman committing robbery in his house. When Furman attempted to escape the home he dropped his gun. Upon hitting the ground, the gun discharged and killed the homeowner.
The death was a freak accident that resulted in murder. At trial, in an unsworn statement, Furman said that while trying to escape, he tripped and the gun he was carrying fired accidentally, killing the victim. This contradicted his prior statement to police that he had turned and blindly fired a shot while fleeing. Either way, because the shooting occurred during the commission of a felony, Furman was still guilty of murder and eligible for the death penalty under the law at the time. He was tried and found guilty based largely on his own statement. He was sentenced to death, but the punishment was never carried out. The death penalty was ruled illegal within the United States in 1976 as a result of the Furman v Georgia case. Later, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was allowed, but only in the event that the sentencing was delivered at the time of the trial and that the jury who had sentenced the individual to death was determined to review the details of the case. After the decision in the Furman trial, the states of Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Louisiana amended their death penalty laws to meet the new guidelines.
William J. Brennan, Jr., Potter Stewart, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William Rehnquist, John P. Stevens, and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger were the 9 Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court that wrote the opinions for the decision of the sentencing. There was a 5-4 decision in the opinion of whether or not the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution. Five of the nine justices concurred that the use of capital punishment would not violate the 8th and 14th amendments as long as the state issued guidelines that would make it fair and equal for all defendants. The other 4 justices dissented that capital punishment was a violation of the 8th and 14th amendments no matter the guidelines and regulations. The Furman decision stopped all executions pending in the 39 states that authorized the death penalty. Over six hundred people were awaiting execution at the time. Faced with a non-unanimous Supreme Court decision, theses states had three options, either develop mandatory death sentences for crimes that were carefully defined by laws, develop jury guidelines to reduce juror discretion, or abolish capital punishment all together.
The state of Georgia chose to develop guidelines for jurors. Once a person is convicted in a trial where capital punishment is an option the jury must determine in the penalty phase whether any unique and extreme circumstances should be considered before the court decides whether to impose a death sentence. Under the Georgia laws, first the defendant was convicted of, or pled guilty to, a capital crime. Then an additional hearing, at which the jury receives additional evidence of extreme circumstantial evidence, is held. In order for the defendant to be eligible for the death penalty, the jury has to find the existence of one of ten aggravating factors. If the jury found that one or more of the aggravating factors existed beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant would be eligible for the death penalty.