Few crimes can match the spectacle and horror than that which Aurora, Colorado theatergoers would suffer on the night of July 20, 2012. 20 minutes into a midnight premiere screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” a man, clad head-to-toe in ballistics gear, walked through the emergency exit door of the packed theater, lobbed two teargas canisters into the darkened room, and began firing the first of his three guns into the audience. The next few minutes were a storm of bullets, bloodshed and chaos.
Before surrendering to police, former neuroscience student James Holmes murdered 12 people and injured dozens more, some permanently. In the aftermath of the carnage, District Attorney George Brauchler sought the death penalty, citing the brutality and magnitude of the act. Last Friday, after the requisite years of torpid legal process, family and friends of the slain found some closure as the jury ruled on Holmes’ punishment. The sentence: life in prison without parole.
A sole member of the 12-person jury had reservations about carrying out the death penalty, and such verdicts require unanimity. Not surprisingly, some of those most dissatisfied with the sentence were those affected by the crime. Robert Sullivan, who lost his six-year-old granddaughter, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, to the shooting, expressed his disappointment to the New York Times, saying in disbelief, “He’s still living and breathing.”
Determining the death penalty as inherently just or unjust would require a moral thesis beyond the scope of this column. So, in brief, here is my personal view: I believe the death penalty is appropriate for crimes so malicious that they set themselves apart as outliers in our social conscience, and are so loaded with evidence that there can be no doubt as to who perpetrated them. This is a stance my moral compass can support in a vacuum, as it were. But morals aside, there are numerous real-world barriers which trump my sense that capital punishment is justifiable.
The first reason for pause is the pure financial cost associated with the death penalty.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), as of April 1, 2015, there were 3,002 inmates on death row. From 2005 to 2014, the nation averaged 45 executions per year. When prosecutors seek the death penalty they precipitate a spate of retrials and appeals that go on for decades. One 2009 DPIC study found that when the cost of the entire death row population is divided by the number of executions, the tab is around $30 million per execution. This is a massive opportunity cost, which could undoubtedly be spent on something more fruitful than courtroom battles.
Second, the task of carrying out a humane execution is more difficult than it seems. Last year, for instance, the execution by lethal injection of an Oklahoma convict, Clayton Lockett, lasted upwards of 40 minutes. In the June 2015 issue of Atlantic Magazine, Jeffrey Stern recounts the disturbing sequence of events that culminated in the macabre scene. He explains that after losing their primary drug supplier, the state found itself unable to procure its top-shelf drug, as virtually no pharmaceutical company wants the public relations-nightmare that is supplying lethal injection components. The state eventually settled on a more readily available drug, midazolam. Sadly, it proved inadequate in this instance.
For the sake of contingency, my home state of Tennessee recently revived the electric chair as a means of execution should lethal injection drugs be unavailable. The chair strikes me as a bizarre device in gross violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishments.” Its effects on the human body are horrific. Details aren’t necessary. I’ll just say there’s a reason the condemned wears a shroud over their face before the switch is thrown.
The most salient reason for foregoing the death penalty is the risk of executing an innocent. Even the most convincing convictions can unravel in time. According to the DPIC, 155 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. Surely, the 1,412 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty contained a smattering of innocents.
But what about the case of Mr. Holmes? With him, we really do know that he is guilty. Well, to sanction this one man’s execution, we must sanction the whole apparatus of capital punishment, and we should keep in mind the ever-present possibility of human error in the justice system.
Furthermore, has society been shorted any substantial justice by imprisoning him for life rather than executing him? The former is tantamount to the latter in that a life is effectively taken away. The difference between the two is that a life sentence doles out punishment in weeks and years, but execution is a lump sum incapable of dispensing change.
Strangely, capital punishment is something about which I’m not particularly passionate. The fate of our society doesn’t hinge on its continued use or its termination. For that very reason, we should err on the side of common sense.
Honestly, is it worth the considerable costs to chase a debt James Holmes and his ilk can never truly repay? And yet, when I envision myself trying to convince the teary-eyed citizens of that Colorado courtroom that they should have to make do with something less than ultimate vengeance, I fear my well-reasoned intentions might not stand up to their pleas.