40 Years Ago the US (Briefly) Outlawed the Death Penalty

thurgood marshall

In 1972 Thurgood Marshall was one of five Justices who ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Thurgood Marshall, civil rights leader and our country’s first African American Supreme Court Justice, is one of the most distinguished people ever to come out of Maryland. The BWI airport is named after him, and a statue of him stands in the midst of the state capitol complex in Annapolis.

Forty years ago today on June 29, 1972, Marshall was one of the five Justices who ruled, in a case called Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty was unconstitutional and commuted all the country’s death sentences.

He wrote:

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. We … join the approximately 70 [now 141] other jurisdictions in the world which celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.

Sadly, this Furman decision didn’t last, and by 1977 the U.S. was back in the execution business.


Starvin’ for Justice: Reflections of the Four Day Fast and Vigil

By Andrea Finuccio

For the last 17 years, the Abolitionist Action Committee has been holding a four-day fast and vigil outside of the Supreme Court from June 29-July 2, and it is aptly named “Starvin’ for Justice.”  The vigil starts on the day Furman v. Georgia was decided in 1972 (temporarily banning the death penalty) and ends on the day in 1976 that Gregg v. Georgia overturned Furman, and its purpose is to protest and petition for the abolition of the death penalty. Three weeks prior to this event, I got an email from another intern asking me about information about it to put into a newsletter, and once I was done doing some research I was so intrigued I signed up. I participated fully – I only drank liquids, I slept in front of the Supreme Court, and I tabled and handed out pamphlets in the DC heat, while still going to work and school. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever partaken in. Below is a summary of my experiences, and I hope that by reading this you will be inspired to sacrifice something small for a cause you love.

On the night of June 28, I walked into a private room at the Capital Brewing Company to enjoy my last meal before four days of fasting. I came alone as I knew no one, and slowly realized that most of these people had been coming for years – they had friends, connections, stories and inside jokes – something I lacked. But as I enjoyed my black-bean burger and French fries, people noticed I was a newcomer and introduced themselves to me, and I began to ease up. As the clock slowly closed in towards midnight, the group began their walk to the Supreme Court for the vigil’s kick off.

Some of the abolitionists and me (far left with white shirt) in front of the Supreme Court on the last day.

At 12:01am, the anniversary of the decision of Furman v. Georgia, the fast officially began. As we stood in a circle in front of the Supreme Court, we went around one by one and said whom we are and why we were there. People were from all over – Washington, California, Connecticut, South Dakota, France, Sweden, and London – and each had their own personal reason for participating. It was then I knew that this week was going to be something to remember.