The trial of James Holmes promises to bring the national debate over capital punishment to the forefront once again. If Holmes murdered the 12 victims in Aurora while sane, would capital punishment be the most just sentence? Yes.
Throughout the centuries, different theories of criminal justice system developed. Historically, punishment for criminal activity centered on imposing penalties which would (1) deter both the perpetrators and (2) potential perpetrators from committing future crimes, (3) diminish the capability of a given criminal to repeat those crimes in the future, and also (4) to impose retribution on the wrongdoer.
A fifth theory of justice, rehabilitative, gained prominence beginning in the 1960’s. This theory attempted to change the primary emphasis of the criminal justice from one of punishment to one of rehabilitation. Once a criminal was sufficiently rehabilitated, the bias was expected to one in favor of release. The age-old concept of retribution became secondary — or nonexistent — in the minds of some “progressive” judges as the belief in individual responsibility and free will gave way to theories of determinism. No longer did certain legal theorists consider it “fair” or “just” to actually base punishments solely on the moral repugnancy of the crime.
This brings us to the case of James Holmes. What is the most just punishment for Holmes should he be found both sane at the time of the massacre and guilty of committing those murders? Is it enough to ask which punishment is sufficient to prevent him from committing another massacre? Is it enough to ask which punishment is sufficient to deter other people with a potential to commit such crimes? Is it enough to simply ensure that Holmes is incapable of committing another atrocity? Or should the focus be on rehabilitating Holmes for a return to docile public life?
It’s revealing that even the most “progressive” pundits or legal experts have failed to suggest that Holmes should be released back into the general public. For numerous other crimes, including violent ones, progressive voices often encourage a focus on rehabilitation at the expense of societal deterrence and often to the exclusion of retributive justice. In this case, these progressive pundits seem to have imposed arbitrary limits to such a theory in the most reprehensible of crimes; or perhaps they realize how unpalatable this suggestion would be to most people. At any rate, the rehabilitative theory of justice certainly will not be applied in the sentencing of Holmes.
So, let’s discuss the more traditional notions of criminal justice in relation to the Aurora killings now that rehabilitation and release is eliminated from consideration. Between life imprisonment and execution, which is more likely to deter potential perpetrators from murdering others? Proponents of capital punishment often highlight its deterrent effect; however, the uneven manner in which this nation applies capital punishment and the lengthy appeals process in such cases serve to diminish the relative deterrent effect relative to life imprisonment.
While either life imprisonment or capital punishment serves as adequate deterrent for some people with a propensity for violence, this situation is different from most episodes of violent crime. The Aurora killer committed the crime absent monetary motivation, seemingly absent any particular individual vendetta, and with the knowledge of almost certain capture. For killers in such a depraved state, neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment is likely to serve as sufficient deterrent.
Both life imprisonment and capital punishment also serve to equally incapacitate Holmes from committing future atrocities. Absent escape, imprisonment will prevent Holmes from ever walking the streets again. Death accomplishes the same. As with the deterrence theory, this theory also gives neither punishment a distinct advantage over the other.
One last important theory remains, however — the retributive theory. In short, retribution demands that the punishment fit the crime. This concept is known as “the principle of just deserts.” Punishments apportioned by the court should escalate according to the seriousness of the crime and the moral culpability of the perpetrator. Deprivation of “liberty and happiness,” even for short periods of time, can indeed be a severe punishment. However, no punishment speaks with such finality as deprivation of “life.” By sentencing one to death, society declares with absolute resolve the moral repugnancy of the evil committed. Intentionally snuffing out an innocent life constitutes the pinnacle of evil. A sentence of death constitutes the requisite ultimate punishment. In other words, the punishment of death fits the crime of murder.
But what of those who argue that capital punishment is merely state-sanctioned murder, that murder does not justify “murder?” Sadly, those who suggest capital punishment is “murder” pervert the definition of “murder” in order to serve their own ideological ends. In so doing, they betray the cause of justice, incense the memory of the victims lost, and engage in the most irrational form of moral relativity. What is murder? The common law definition has evolved with time, as has the definition in the Model Penal Code. However, a basic definition is “the unlawful killing of another human being without justification or excuse.” Although capital punishment is undoubtedly “lawful” in Colorado, one could correctly argue that an action could be “lawful” and exercised by the state, yet still be morally wrong — and even qualify as murder. However, in the case of capital punishment for murder, the action is both justified and with excuse.
The “justification” and “excuse” have their grounding on centuries of human tradition, Western common law history, moral teaching, the Constitution, and even religious precepts.
Of course, many opponents of the death penalty do not stop at twisting the definition of murder to advance their agenda. Some opponents attempt to deceive the public by taking unscrupulous advantage of certain religious sentiments. In fact, the Hebrew Bible sanctioned capital punishment for numerous offenses, including murder (Leviticus 24:17) and kidnapping (Exodus 21:16). Although some argue that the Christianity opposes capital punishment, a study of the Christian Bible shows otherwise. Paul spoke in favor of the state’s responsibility to establish law and order, including the use of capital punishment (the sword) (Romans 13:1-3). Although Jesus did teach the importance of forgiveness as individuals, Paul elaborates on this by explaining the importance of leaving punishment to the government and ultimate vengeance to God. I am not a Christian and am not relying on Saint Paul’s writing as proof of my position. Rather, I draw attention to these passages to show that opposition to the death penalty on the basis of Christianity is clearly countered by the sacred texts of that faith.
If James Holmes committed these murders as a sane man, justice will be most fully served with a sentence of capital punishment. The goal of executing a mass killer is not general deterrence, prevention of repeat crimes, or revenge.
Capital punishment is simply the truest form of justice for such a crime. No other crime violates the human race in such a manner; no other punishment serves the interests of justice ... of just deserts ... in the same manner.