Furman v. Georgia:
The Death Penalty Case
William Henry Furman, a twenty-six-year-old black man with a sixth-grade
education, was not what most people called a "bad" man. He was, by his
own admission, down on his luck. Recently laid off his job, he bounced
around his home state of Georgia for months. Everywhere he went, he
looked for a job, any job. He found his share of work, too, over the
months, but none of the jobs was very good, and none was permanent. He
went from gardener to dock worker; from janitor to delivery man.
But no matter how hard he tried to get ahead, the jobs always ended too
soon, and in time his money ran out.
Furman began showing signs of depression. He became sullen and moody.
Eventually, hungry and broke, he turned to breaking and entering and to
petty thievery to survive. Nothing major, according to Georgia State
A few things here, a few there. Mostly, he would look for a likely house and
plan his assault well after dark, when the residents were either away or
sure to be asleep. Then he would sneak in an open window or jimmy a
locked door, rummage around for whatever valuables he could find, and be
gone, usually within ten or fifteen minutes.
He'd been caught a couple of times and, each time, was given a light or
suspended sentence. He'd been examined once by a state-appointed
psychiatrist who had found him to be emotionally disturbed and mentally
impaired—but not enough to have him held in jail or committed to a mental
institution. Usually, he was back on the streets—and struggling to
survive—within a matter of
Then on August 11, 1967, Furman's luck took a turn for the worse. He
had just broken into the home of twenty-nine-year-old William Joseph Micke,
Jr., the father of five young children. While Micke, his wife, and his
children slept upstairs, Furman rifled the lower level of the house for
whatever valuables he could find.
Suddenly, around 2 A.M., Micke awoke to the sound of someone rummaging
around downstairs. He crawled out of bed and made his way slowly
toward the kitchen. The noises grew louder.
Furman, too, heard noises—the steadily approaching footsteps of William
Micke. He pulled out the gun he had brought along with him—just in
case he had to scare someone away. He paused and listened to the
footsteps. Closer and closer they came. Not wanting to risk a
confrontation, Furman turned and fled through the back door leading to the
porch. As he ran, he tripped over an exposed washing-machine cord and
fell face first against the hardwood floor. The gun discharged.
The stray bullet pierced the back door. On the other side, Micke
slumped slowly to the floor.
William Joseph Micke was dead.
The police responded to the call quickly and, within minutes, they had
apprehended Furman just down the street from the scene of the crime.
The murder weapon was still in his pocket.
When his trial came up, Furman, on the advice of his court-appointed
attorney, pleaded not guilty by means of insanity. The courts ordered
a psychiatric test, and the physicians who examined him agreed unanimously
that he was mentally deficient. In their report, they concluded that
Furman experienced mild-to-moderate psychotic episodes associated with
The physicians testified in court that Furman was not psychotic at the time
of his examination, but they agreed that he was not capable of cooperating
with his defense attorney in the preparation of his own case. They
concluded that he was in need of further psychiatric hospitalization and
Several days later, the Superintendent of the Georgia Central State
Hospital, where Furman had been committed while awaiting trial, revised his
own earlier medical opinion after finding that Furman was "not psychotic at
present, knows right from wrong, and is able to cooperate with his counsel
in preparing his defense." The court then ruled that William Henry Furman
was competent to stand trial for murder in the Superior Court of Chatham
County, Georgia. Although the killing of Micke had been accidental, or
at least committed without any intent to kill, Georgia state law at the time
authorized that the death penalty be given whenever a murder took place
during the commission of a felony, a class of crimes that includes burglary.
Furman was tried, convicted, and scheduled for sentencing. The jury,
faced with imposing either life imprisonment or death on Furman, chose
William Furman's attorneys were shocked. Their client was a man whom
society had literally forgotten. He had seemed genuinely sorry for
Micke's death. He had been down on his luck. He had turned to
burglary only as a last-ditch effort to survive—while quite possibly being
plagued by psychotic bouts. Certainly the court should have given him
life imprisonment at worst.
But, besides having killed someone in the process of committing a burglary,
William Furman had one other thing going against him. He was black.
And Georgia crime statistics showed that, like most blacks found guilty of
committing murder in that state during the sixties and seventies, that fact
alone was reason enough to sentence him to death.
There were still various legal avenues open to Furman and his attorneys
before the death sentence was carried out. There were motions to be
filed. There were appeals to be made. And, if it came right down
to it, there was one last road to take. There was the Supreme Court of
the United States.
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