January 17, 1977
Thirty-six years ago, in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the use of the death penalty. The 5-4 ruling extended a de facto moratorium on capital punishment that had been in effect since 1967, but divisions within the majority opinion opened the way to its reinstatement.
Two justices held that the penalty itself was inherently cruel and unusual punishment, while the remaining three held that state capital statutes, as then written, led to arbitrary, often discriminatory application of the death penalty.
State legislatures quickly began revising their statutes and four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the high court allowed executions to resume.
In 1976, Gary Gilmore murdered two people in Utah shortly after being paroled from federal prison. Convicted and sentenced to death, Gilmore became the first to die under the reinstituted penalty after refusing all efforts to appeal or postpone his execution. Given the choice of a firing squad or the hangman’s noose, he said he’d rather be shot. His final words: “Let’s do it.”