The Denver Post reported Monday that Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler has said prosecutors will ask for the death penalty in the case against James Holmes, the accused Aurora theater shooter. For Holmes, Brauchler said, “justice is death.”
That may well be true. A better question, though, is what constitutes justice for his victims and the people of Colorado. At a time when the state is struggling to properly fund schools, parks and roads is killing him really worth the cost?
That question is particularly troubling in that it was revealed last week that Holmes had agreed to plead guilty and accept a life sentence without possibility of parole. With that, the state could be done with this, lock up Holmes forever and let the countless people he hurt get on with their grief, their healing and their lives – all at minimal cost.
Holmes is charged with a total of 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and other crimes for killing a dozen people and wounding 58 in the Aurora theater shooting July 20. There appears to be little question as to whether he did it. As such, a trial may well turn not so much on his guilt as his sanity.
Also, it might cost a fortune, which would have effects beyond the courtroom. As a 2010 Fox News story about the cost of the death penalty put it, “Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.”
Citing one Richard C. Dieter of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, Fox said, “Studies have uniformly and conservatively shown that a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole.” The story also points to a study from Duke University that says North Carolina could save $11 million per year by forgoing the death penalty, an Urban Institute study that says Maryland spends an extra $1.9 million per trial on death-penalty cases, and a state-sponsored study in Kansas that said death-penalty cases cost 70 percent more than trials where execution is not sought.
As in so many things, California is an extreme example. A 2009 Associated Press story said in that state, the wait from conviction to execution averages 20 years.
The AP also quoted a retired judge, Donald McCartin, who had himself sentenced nine men to death. McCartin, who died at age 87 last year, became an outspoken critic of capital punishment. He retired from the bench in 1993, but as of 2009, all of his death-penalty cases were still “bogged down in the appellate system.”
The death penalty, said McCartin, is “a waste of time and money. The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims’ families.”
The impulse to want someone such as Holmes executed is natural and wholly understandable. Regardless of whether he is mentally ill, the man caused an incalculable amount of suffering. And he did so with no reason, not even a criminal one.
But, for just those reasons, it is unconscionable to devote what could be millions of dollars to him – even if it is to kill him. The state has limited resources and a finite budget. Money spent on trials and appeals to execute Holmes is money that will not go to other efforts that could help deserving people, such as law-abiding taxpayers.
Life without parole would hardly amount to letting Holmes off easy; he could spend 60 years in prison. But it would save the taxpayers a lot of money and spare his victims the dragged-out reminder of their loss. They are the people who deserve our consideration now, not Holmes.