Another Reason To Oppose The Death Penalty

In Colorado, James Holmes has been convicted of multiple counts of capital murder.  He’s the bug-eyed killer who burst into a crowded movie theater in 2012, threw tear gas, then started shooting, killing 12 people and wounding 70.  The carnage he caused has been recounted, with lasting horror, by some of the survivors at his trial.

But now we are hearing emotional testimony from James Holmes’ mother.  She says she thought she had a “good kid” who was self-sufficient and responsible, although she was saddened and guilty that he was “losing his joy” as he grew into adulthood.  She says she never knew that her son was so mentally ill that he was capable of random mass murder.  And other family members, teachers, and friends have testified about Holmes being a happy boy, a “Renaissance child,” and a nerdy teenager.

It’s all part of the “mitigation phase” of the trial, where the jury will decide whether Holmes should receive the death penalty for his appalling crimes.  His lawyers want the jury to feel sorry for him and his family and to conclude that the shootings didn’t occur because Holmes was intrinsically evil, but because he was mentally “sick.”  And so the jury has been listening to witness after witness testify about Holmes in a way designed to encourage jurors to show mercy — even though he didn’t show mercy to those innocents he gunned down.

I’m opposed to the death penalty on principle, so I don’t need to be convinced that Holmes should receive life in prison.  However, I think this phase of the Holmes trial aptly illustrates another reason why the death penalty should be abolished.  It is simply unfair to put the families of the victims through a process where they have to hear that the person who ruthlessly killed their loved ones was once an outgoing “Renaissance child” or an uncoordinated teenage nerd, and it is unseemly to call his Mom and Dad to the stand to shed a few tears to try to save their little boy’s skin.

A process that is designed to curry sympathy for the killer, by recalling his boyhood and moments where he laughed or cried or kicked a soccer ball, is senseless and offensive because whatever his meager childhood accomplishments may have been shrivel to nothingness against the magnitude of his adult crimes.  Don’t try to make me feel sorry for James Holmes.  I feel sorry for the victims and their families for the loss that Holmes inflicted.  Lock him away, and be done with it.

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Death To The Boston Bomber?

On Friday a jury concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty for his involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Last month, the same jury found Tsarnaev guilty of planting bombs that killed three people and maimed and injured hundreds more, as well as the killing of an MIT police officer.  The jury then heard evidence about the appropriate punishment for his crimes and deliberated for three days before unanimously concluding that death is the appropriate sentence of Tsarnaev’s placement of a bomb that killed an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard, and Lingzi Lu, a graduate student from China.  By all accounts, the jury took its job seriously and soberly and carefully considered Tsarnaev’s childhood and cultural background, as well as evidence that his older brother was the mastermind of the bombings, before deciding that the death penalty was appropriate.

Tsarnaev’s crimes were terrible and unforgivable.  They were terrorism in the truest sense of the word, because they were not targeted at any specific person.  Their only purpose was to kill and hurt people indiscriminately, harm the reputation of a venerable American institution, and cause the general populace to worry that they might be risking their lives whenever they attend or participate in a mass sporting event or rally.  There is simply no justification for the commission of such crimes.  Whatever his upbringing, anyone who can rationalize placing a bomb in a crowd and killing wholly innocent people is a bad man who deserves to be punished.

Nevertheless, I’m opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in other cases.  I don’t think we need to show terrorists overseas how tough we are, and in any case I doubt that they pay much attention to the workings of the American justice system.  I also don’t think killing Tsarnaev is going to dissuade others from committing acts of domestic terrorism, just as the execution of Timothy McVey for the Oklahoma City bombing didn’t stop the Tsarnaev brothers from proceeding with their crimes.  A death sentence simply ensures that we will spend huge amounts of time and money on appeals and will be reminded of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his awful crimes every once in a while, when his case is reargued and reargued again in court.

I’d rather we just throw this evil man into prison and leave him to rot, alone and forgotten, for the rest of his miserable and misbegotten life.

Some Serious Thoughts About That Obese Guy On Death Row

It’s one of those weird stories that makes you stop for a minute and say, “What??”  In Ohio, a death row inmate, Ronald Ray Post, is asking that his execution be postponed because he is morbidly obese.

Post weighs 480 pounds, and his lawyers say that the lethal execution methods that Ohio uses to impose the death penalty won’t quickly and painlessly kill him and therefore would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Post’s lawyers contend that the gurney won’t hold his vast bulk and that the execution team will have a difficult time finding a vein in which to make the injection under the layers of fat.  The lawyers insist that Post’s weight gain wasn’t deliberate.  In fact, they note that Post requested bariatric surgery from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to control his weight, but administrators refused the request because the surgery wasn’t medically necessary.  (Post has not only sued the state over denial of bariatric surgery, but also because he has to use a steel toilet seat in his cell and hasn’t been granted visitation rights with a girlfriend.)

The story of Ronald Ray Post is the kind of odd story that quickly becomes the stuff of jokes.  For example, how does a guy in prison get to weigh 480 pounds?  What is the Department of Corrections feeding this guy?  Hey, I know death row prisoners get a last meal — how many last meals has this dude pounded down?  Ho ho!  And get this:  Post supposedly was trying to lose weight and was using the prison exercise bike until is broke under the strain.  Pretty funny, huh?

But beneath the crude jokes lurks a serious point, I think.  Post was convicted and sentenced to death for the heinous, deliberate killing of an innocent hotel clerk in 1983.  There’s nothing funny, obviously, about his terrible crime — and there’s really nothing funny about his situation or his claim, either.  Virtually every death sentence in Ohio is the subject of multiple, costly appeals and facially absurd claims, where we argue about whether the state is engaging in a sufficiently painless way of killing a murderer.  In the modern world of constant recession and tight government budgets, why should we pay for such appeals — to say nothing of litigation about Post’s alleged right to get bariatric surgery and a special toilet because he’s got an uncontrollable appetite?

I oppose the death penalty because I think it is wrong for the state to put people to death, and also absurd for a state that is killing an inmate to express concern about whether the inmate is unduly suffering while the death penalty is being exacted.  But I also think we can’t just afford the cost and constant litigation about death sentences.  Put confessed murderers like Mr. Post in prison forever and let him eat himself to death — but don’t make beleaguered taxpayers pay for decades to fight every step in the bizarro death penalty dance.

What Century Is This, Anyway?

Today Utah executed a death row inmate by firing squad.  That’s right — by firing squad.  In this case, a five-member firing squad accomplished the execution, shortly after midnight Mountain Time.

Utah is one of only two states that still permit death by firing squad, and then only for a few “grandfathered” death row inmates.  It is hard to understand why the method has been eliminated for all but “grandfathered” inmates, but that is Utah’s law.  Even more curious, the firing squad apparently has been selected as the execution method of choice by other “grandfathered” Utah inmates who have that option.

Why would you choose death by firing squad, as opposed to death by lethal injection?  It may be because the decision highlights, at least in part, the anachronistic nature of the death penalty.  Death by firing squad takes us back a century or more and seems more suited to dusty Central American courtyard scenes in the 1880s than the 21st century American world of computers and the internet.

The use of firing squads is not only anachronistic, it also is deeply troubling for other reasons.  How do you recruit members of the firing squad?  If it is done by volunteers, what does it tell you about the people who would volunteer to fire bullets into a target on the chest of a bound man?  And why would we want anyone who has done that deed to be walking among the general public?