Furman, a 26-year-old black man, was burglarizing a home when a resident discovered him. Trying to flee, Furman tripped, causing his gun to fire through a closed door. The bullet struck and killed the resident. Furman was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. When the case was presented to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the defendant argued that Furman's sentence constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," and was therefore a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty in this case was, indeed, unconstitutional.

In Justice Marshall's concurring opinion, he said that the death penalty is inherently unconstitutional. In his conclusion, he wrote:

At a time in our history when the streets of the Nation's cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens. But, the measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis. ...

Only in a free society could right triumph in difficult times, and could civilization record its magnificent advancement. In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. We achieve "a major milestone in the long road up from barbarism" and join the approximately 70 other jurisdictions in the world which celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.