|James E. Holmes|
As the judge sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his act of homicidal madness in a Colorado theater, relatives of the twelve people he killed wept, or sucked in their breaths in disbelief and disappointment. According to the A.P.’s account, for example, “Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed by Holmes, shook her head no and then held it in her hands.”
As long as death is a possible option in our sentencing schemes, then anything short of death means that your “victim” – the son or daughter or wife or mother whose life the defendant ended – is of lesser value than the victim that earned the ultimate penalty. The difference between a sentence of 25 years, for example, and life in prison is vast, but it is measured on a scale of years that all of us can understand. However, the difference between any sentence of years and death is more than just vast, it is of a different realm, necessarily beyond our experience and comprehension.
Two months ago, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for killing three people in the Boston Marathon bombing. Were his three victims worth more than James Holmes’ twelve victims? Were they worth more than Jessica Ghawi? No one would answer yes to that question, but how else is Jessica’s mother to feel? Imagine yourself the mother or sister or son or brother of a homicide victim hearing that the jury, which could have had the defendant put to death, instead “spared him” with a sentence of life in prison without parole (which, of course, is also death). How could you feel any differently than Jessica’s mother did, than all those grieving survivors of those twelve Colorado victims did, that you and your dead son or daughter had been devalued?
There is no way around this inevitable consequence, this fundamental difference in emotional reaction as long as death, per se, is on the books. Though it is often defended by its proponents and practitioners as a way to express how much we value life, in fact, the death penalty can only disparage the lives of the vast number of victims whose killers do not receive it. The death penalty creates two classes of victims: those worthy of “the ultimate penalty” and all the rest, worthy of something less.
This is what the Supreme Court’s meant by the dictum “Death is different.” There are so many rational arguments to end the death penalty from its crushing cost to its history of error, from its disparate class and race impact, to its moral and religious violations. But when even the arguments for retaining it prove to be illusive, perhaps we can summon the political will, the moral courage to say, “It’s enough.”
Source: Michael A. Kroll, August 12, 2015. Michael Kroll, the founding executive director (1990-1992) of Death Penalty Information Center.
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