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Furman v. Georgia:
The Death Penalty Case

1

Georgia, 1967
 


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 Patrol records.

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
weeks.

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 convulsive disorder.

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 treatment.

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 death.

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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