Death by Imprisonment
In 2018, a 19-year-old former student at a Florida high school, Nikolas Cruz, shot and killed 17 students and adults there, and later pled guilty to capital murder. On October 13, 2022, after a six-month penalty trial, the jury rendered its verdict, shocking most observers: life in prison without parole. A death sentence would have required a unanimous decision, but 3 jurors voted to spare Cruz’ life. Ironically, perhaps, the case underscores another argument against capital punishment – and one that is hardly ever addressed.
Death by Imprisonment
Mercifully, no one who has not experienced the murder of their child can really know the pain and anguish felt by the loved ones left behind in the wake of the carnage committed by Nikolas Cruz. He pled guilty to the murder of 17 people, mostly students, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Parkland High School in Florida in 2018. Surprisingly, especially in a state that is behind only Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma in the number of its citizens it has put to death, the jury charged with determining his punishment, as between death by lethal injection or life in prison without the possibility of parole, decided that life in prison was the appropriate penalty.
Understandably, those left to bear the pain, the families and loved ones of the victims, felt let down, betrayed, cheated. Understandably, they wanted the maximum penalty the law allows, which, in this case, is the death penalty. The jury’s decision added yet another layer of pain and grief to these long-suffering people. To me, it is another dramatic illustration of why the death penalty should be abolished.
What if the death penalty were not the state’s most severe penalty? What if life in prison without the possibility of parole, the sentence rendered by Cruz’ jury, were the top punishment allowed? Better yet, what if the top penalty could still be defined as capital punishment as in “Death by imprisonment”? Since most death-sentenced prisoners die of natural causes before the state can carry out a sentence of death, “Death by imprisonment” would barely change what’s already happening, and – in this case – the consequences would be exactly the same: life in prison until you die.
What so angers these hurt parents, beyond the hurt that no penalty can undo, is that the law required this death-qualified jury to weigh “aggravating factors” (the depravity of the crime or number of victims, for example) against “mitigating factors” (Cruz’ developmental limitations due to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or his history of sexual abuse, for example), as they decide his penalty. How could a parent whose child has been murdered ever find any mitigation that outweighs the loss of that child? The cruelty is in making the jury weigh those factors in front of the families who believe, as we all would, that only the most severe penalty the law permits would satisfy the demands of justice. Anything short of the most severe penalty possible would leave them feeling as they do: cheated of even that small satisfaction.
If death by imprisonment – life without parole – had been the most severe penalty the jury could impose, those permanently-injured surviving loved ones would have at least felt that the killer of their children was dealt the highest punishment. This would not have brought them “closure” as prosecutors often promise, because nothing will ever bring them closure. But, at least, they would not have the extra burden of feeling the system had failed them.
There are so many reasons to abolish capital punishment: the possibility of error (nearly 200 people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, including at least 30 in Florida alone); its history of racism in its application; its burdensome cost; its failure as a deterrent, to name a few. The fact that it leaves victims’ families feeling they’ve been gut punched when it is available but not imposed against the killer of their loved ones, is yet another