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Poll: James Holmes and the death penalty

April 12, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Aurora, Colo., theater shooting suspect James Holmes sits in the courtroom during his arraignment in Centennial, Colo. On April 1, prosecutors announced they will seek the death penalty against Holmes.
Aurora, Colo., theater shooting suspect James Holmes sits in the courtroom… (R.J. Sangosti / Associated…)

Some friends and relatives of the victims of July's movie theater shooting spree in Aurora, Colo., in which 12 people were killed and dozens injured, are pleased that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against alleged gunman James Holmes and have rebuffed his offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison.

Should their opinions matter?

My short, if politically unpopular answer, is no.

It’s natural that the victims’ loved ones are talking in terms of an eye for an eye and a death for a death (actually many deaths). Bryan Beard, a friend of Alex Sullivan, who was killed in the July 20 rampage, said: “I want him dead. I just want to be there in the room when he dies. He took one of my friends from this Earth.”

But the whole point of the criminal justice system is to deflect the public thirst for vengeance and to entrust decisions about punishment to judges, juries and, in the first instance, prosecutors. In Holmes’ case, that decision should take into account the fact that Holmes was deranged when he allegedly committed his crime. (His attorneys are expected to offer an insanity defense.)

District Atty. George Brauchler didn’t acknowledge that he had given the friends and relatives of the victims a controlling say in his decision. But the Denver Post reported that he “reached his conclusion after personally speaking to 60 family members of the slain” and that his office “had reached out to more than 800 relatives of victims, shooting survivors and their families.”

Whatever your opinion of capital punishment -- and the Los Angeles Times editorial page opposes it in all circumstances -- a prosecutor’s decision on whether to seek the death penalty shouldn’t be based on either public opinion or the wishes of the victims’ loved ones. Their sense of loss and grievance is entitled to the utmost respect, but it shouldn’t play a part in prosecutorial decisions.

At least, that's my view. What's yours? Take our wildly unscientific poll, leave a comment below, or do both.


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