Georgia inmate in historic death penalty case gains perspective

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 27, 2016 2:59 PM

By David Beasley

MACON, Ga. (Reuters) - William Henry Furman, a convicted murderer whose objections to the death penalty once suspended executions across the United States, is finally a free man.

The 73-year-old has been living in a Salvation Army shelter in Macon, Georgia since late last month, when he was released from state prison after a quarter century behind bars.

Without a cell phone, and limited access to news, Furman spoke tersely about capital punishment that is most actively applied today in the U.S. South, while 31 states still have a death penalty on the books.

His home state of Georgia is scheduled to carry out its fifth execution of the year on Wednesday night, using laws that were rewritten after the U.S. Supreme Court spared Furman in a landmark 1972 case.

"I still believe the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment," said Furman during a recent interview with Reuters at state parole offices in Macon.

His hair speckled with gray after 26 years in prison, the wiry former construction worker spent his first weeks on the outside waiting for his Social Security payments to begin.

He wants to share his experiences with young people, counseling them to avoid the alcoholism and petty crimes that led to his conviction for a 1967 murder.

He recalls drinking heavily the night before he broke into a home in Savannah, Georgia. After the homeowner woke up, Furman fired a pistol through a closed door, killing 29-year-old William Joseph Micke Jr.

"Why did I pull that trigger?" Furman still asks himself.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional, in a complex ruling where justices found states were applying it arbitrarily.

More than 500 other inmates on death row nationally were spared and the ruling prompted states to rewrite capital punishment laws to tighter standards.

Released on the murder charge in 1984, Furman was sent back to prison in 2006 on an unrelated burglary charge.

Critics say the death penalty remains arbitrarily enforced, with two states - Georgia and Texas - responsible for 10 of the 12 executions performed so far this year.

"You are looking at a death penalty that is not nationally imposed," Robert Dunham, executive director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, said in a telephone interview.

Furman has advice that could quell the debate: "I can tell anybody who wants to commit a murder, 'Leave it alone.'"

(Reporting by David Beasley; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alan Crosby)