Skip to main content

Why death penalty for Holmes wouldn't bring justice

By James R. Acker, Special to CNN
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Acker: If anyone has death penalty coming, it would seem to be James Holmes
  • That's only if it's proved he's too mentally ill to be responsible in theater killings, Acker says
  • He says death penalty costs too much, accomplishes little and is used less and less
  • Acker: Does killing after murder make things better? Is it consistent with our self-respect?

Editor's note: James R. Acker is a distinguished teaching professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany. He is the co-editor of several books addressing capital punishment issues, including "The Future of America's Death Penalty: An Agenda for the Next Generation of Capital Punishment Research" (Carolina Academic Press 2009), and most recently "Wrongful Conviction: Law, Science, and Policy" (Carolina Academic Press 2011), co-edited with Allison D. Redlich.

(CNN) -- If anyone deserves the death penalty, surely it is a man who meticulously plans a mass murder and mercilessly carries it out, shattering the lives of innocents and their loved ones, rending the very bonds of humanity.

Surely such a man deserves this punishment -- if, that is, his grip on moral reasoning has not been eviscerated by mental illness so severe that he can't be responsible for the conduct that would render him guilty under criminal laws. (Such laws have for centuries demanded blameworthiness as a prerequisite to conviction and punishment.)

And if the months of trial preparation, years of hearings, trials and appeals that devour millions of dollars is the best use of those precious resources because -- in the words of the prosecutor representing the people of the state of Colorado in the case against James Holmes -- "justice is death."

There are questions to consider as well:

Will the victims and their families somehow be made whole?

Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man's death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide?

Would this man's execution serve an ineffable impulse for justice?

Would it be necessary to ensure that he does not kill again or to prevent killings by others?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A claim of innocence does not stalk Holmes' trial, nor does the legacy of race discrimination that has so long infected capital punishment. He will be represented by well-trained and competent lawyers. He is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 more, unassuming individuals whose misstep that fateful July evening was gathering to enjoy a movie.

The wheels of his capital prosecution have now been set in motion after the offer made by Holmes' defense counsel to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment without the chance of parole was rejected by Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler.

Judgments about Holmes' criminal responsibility and punishment now will be left to a jury. Under Colorado law, as in other states that authorize capital punishment, that jury will first be "death qualified," that is, purged of citizens whose faith or moral precepts would not permit them to sentence Holmes to death.

But there is more to capital punishment than the moral precepts and more that explains why the death penalty is a dying institution throughout the United States -- certainly in Colorado -- and worldwide.

In a country topping 300 million in population and plagued annually by in excess of 13,000 murders, 78 offenders were added to the nation's death rows last year, down 75% from the 326 sentenced to die in 1995.

In 2012, 43 executions were carried out, less than half of the 98 nationwide in 1998. Three convicted murderers inhabit Colorado's death row, a state that has carried out a single execution in the past 45 years.

Many factors account for the dramatic downturn in the country's historic affinity for capital punishment: a revulsion against the awful prospect of executing an innocent person; the racial and social class inequities imbued in the death penalty's administration; the enormous financial burden placed on state and local budgets in supporting capital prosecutions; the availability of life imprisonment without parole to keep the streets safe.

These are coupled with the paucity of evidence that capital punishment deters murder and the growing recognition that the U.S. is sorely out of step with other democracies around the world that have long since renounced it as a violation of fundamental human rights.

Dad: Holmes should be 'exterminated'
Not guilty plea for James Holmes

If Holmes is convicted in a trial now scheduled to begin not earlier than February 2014, if he is sentenced to die, if no error is found by the appellate courts that will review the proceedings, and if his case is typical of other capital cases in Colorado and elsewhere, he would likely not be executed until 2029.

The murder victims' family members -- those who supported a death sentence in the first place (and many will not have) -- who seek justice or finality through his execution will gain neither until then. Holmes' parents, who were in court when Brauchler announced that the prosecution would seek their son's capital punishment, will also await that long-postponed resolution, sentenced in effect to suffer through those years as well.

While debating the abolition of capital punishment in England in the 1960s, Lord Chancellor Gardiner reminded the House of Lords: "When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged, and then cut down while still alive, and then disemboweled while still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathized with traitors, but because we took the view that it was a punishment no longer consistent with our self-respect."

Lethal injection is some steps removed from Lord Chancellor Gardiner's description of the British practice of drawing and quartering capital offenders.

Some today will maintain that drawing and quartering would be a fate richly deserved by Holmes. Yet despite the deep emotions and other justifications that might be offered in support of Holmes' execution, we might ask what good would be accomplished through this ritual act -- whether the lives of the individual victims and Coloradoans generally will be made better, and justice served by his lethal injection. We might ask whether, ultimately, such punishment would be consistent with our own self-respect.

The answer to whether James Holmes should be executed arguably is less dependent on what we think about him than what it says about us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James R. Acker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT