01 April 2013

In Aurora or anywhere, death penalty is not justice

Prosecutors in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting case have rejected the defense's offer of a plea deal in which suspect James Holmes would have pled guilty in exchange for life in prison rather than the death penalty. The prosecution wants to go for the death penalty.

Some are saying that the death penalty would bring true justice and closure for the victims' families. According to CBS News, the best friend of one of the victims who died in the shooting reacted to the decision by saying, "I had a huge adrenaline rush," he said. "I love the choice, I love it, I love it ... I hope I'm in the room when he dies."

This friend apparently loves the prospect of more death, more killing. As if Aurora hasn't seen enough of that.

The death penalty may make some families feel better. But that's not about justice, it's about revenge. It's an emotional reaction rather than a thoughtful one. And it doesn't necessarily bring closure. In fact, the opposite may be true.

When a killer receives a life sentence, the victim's family gets immediate closure. They know that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars, with no freedom and in very harsh conditions, having to think every day about the reason he is there.

With the death penalty, on the other hand, families are forced to revisit the crime for years, often decades, through the necessary appeals process. Each step reopens that wound.

Some might say that the system should be sped up to avoid the years-long wait. But a look at the more than 300 former prisoners who have been exonerated in this country based on late-arriving DNA and other evidence makes it clear that we cannot rush it. We need to be sure that we are punishing the right person. There is no excuse for executing the wrong person - something that has happened at least a few times.

Even where guilt might seem obvious - as in the Aurora case - we must play by the rules to ensure equal justice for all. Otherwise, we are no better than the Taliban.

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