The Fall and Rise of Capital Punishment: 1965-1976
Leslie Horton, awaiting execution for rape in Florida, was enjoying a visit with his family the morning of June 29, 1972, when a guard stepped in and asked "Can you stand some more good news today?" The Supreme Court, the guard informed him, had just abolished the death penalty. Earlier that morning, Chief Justice Warren Burger had announced the Court's decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia ( 408 U.S. 238, 1972), which by the narrowest of margins declared all existing capital statutes in the United States to be in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
Eighty of the other 86 death-sentenced prisoners at the Florida State Prison Farm got the good news from the radio as they returned from watching a Clint Eastwood movie. Death row erupted in "hollering, hooting, and the exuberant rattling of cell doors." Some shouted "Right on, Mr. Justices." Some mockingly cursed President Nixon, who had campaigned on a punitive "law and order" platform. And at least one wept with joy ( Waldron 1972).
Elsewhere, the response was less enthusiastic. President Nixon reiterated his belief that capital punishment is a superior deterrent to violent crime, and told reporters that he hoped the ruling would not extend to federal death sentences for kidnapping and hijacking ( Robbins 1972). Jere Beasley, the lieutenant governor of Alabama, fumed that "a majority of this nation's highest court has lost contact with the real world." His counterpart in Georgia, Lester Maddox, called the decision "a license for anarchy, rape, murder" (quoted by Meltsner 1973:290). Police chiefs were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the Court's action. Gallup polls were soon reporting a sharp realignment of popular opinion in favor of capital punishment ( Zimring and Hawkins 1986:39-40).
A decade earlier, anyone suggesting that the nation's highest court would ever render a judgment like Furman would not have been taken seriously. Debates