James Holmes Trial Sparks Debate About the Death Penalty in America


Last July, 24-year-old James Holmes was arrested outside the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado. 

Police suspected Holmes had just killed 12 people and wounded 58 others inside the theater. Authorities recovered at the site of the shooting a .40 caliber Glock 22 pistol, a 12-gauge Remington 870 shotgun, and a 5.56mm Smith & Wesson M&P15, the latter sometimes mis-identified as an assault weapon but actually a semi-automatic rifle. 

All of these guns have been traced to purchases made by Holmes. The Glock was found atop Holmes’ Hyundai, where he was standing, dressed in tactical gear, when taken in custody. When arrested, Holmes advised police his apartment was booby-trapped, which was true. Notes from the arrest report state Holmes "simply stared off into the distance" and "seemed to be out of it and disoriented." At a preliminary hearing this month, witnesses have testified that after the shooting Holmes seemed disconnected, indifferent, relaxed, and detached.

Some observers expect Holmes’ counsel to eventually enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But defense attorneys were able to postpone making any plea until March, as the judge decided there is evidence sufficient for Holmes to face trial on 166 counts of homicide, attempted murder, and possession of explosives. Of course these charges are only allegations; Holmes is innocent until proven guilty.

Nevertheless, 12 people were killed. Fifty-eight were wounded. Someone had fired 76 shots at those people, based on the number of casings found inside the theater.  Whether it was Holmes or another person, someone inflicted this carnage.  

Whoever the shooter was, does he deserve the death penalty? That question is easy enough for most Americans to answer. Sure, mass murderers deserve the death penalty.  You kill a bunch of harmless people who have done nothing to you, then executing you is a win-win: You get payback in kind, and we are done with you. 

Most of the world’s social codes authorize a death penalty for murder. In the U.S., we are guided primarily by Judeo-Christian ethics, but in our increasingly pluralistic (and humanistic) society, other codes may be influential. The Mosaic Law of traditional Judaism states "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” Early Christianity allowed that “… if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” The Arapaho, the Indians who lived in the area prior to Anglo settlement, would have required restitution in lieu of execution for a murderer belonging to the tribe – but Holmes is a Californian and so as an outsider would have been killed, had he murdered within their community. Progressives, like the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm, are comfortable with killing people for what progressives perceive to be the betterment of society, although some American progressives have objected to executions of domestic snipers. Sharia law provides for execution, unless victims’ families relent.   Buddhism is a notable exception; it teaches against any punishment that is not reformatory. However, some countries governed by Buddhist adherents do inflict capital punishment for homicide. Hinduism is not explicit on a punishment for murder, but India executes murderers on some occasions.     

So he may indeed deserve to die. But was that the only question that demands an answer?

Let’s consider: Do we, as a society, want our government to kill? 

The quick answer may be: yes, when necessary. So when is killing necessary? Well, in emergencies, when there’s no time for alternatives to be effective. And in war, when diplomacy and compromise fail.

Yet even then we can get a bit queasy. When we read of President Obama’s kill lists, and visualize him using binders in ways Mitt Romney never dreamed of, we ask if this behavior is what we really desire from the rulers we elect.

Our courts are more deliberative and less capricious, but still capital punishment is assigned unevenly and sometimes wronglyfrequently enough that many find this troubling. If a convict receives a sentence of life in prison, there remains an opportunity for correction and restitution, should that be subsequently justified.  If an innocent convict is executed, any error cannot be fixed.

While some Americans may feel that murderers, especially insane mass murderers, have relinquished their rights to personhood and need to be removed for the good of society, other Americans assert a different morality. They find in Christianity a recognition that all of us share culpability before God – we have each, in a variety of ways, estranged ourselves from God – and are each deserving death. And they further recognize that forgiveness outweighs vengeance – a principle shared with Sharia.

So although it may well be that the Aurora shooter deserves a death penalty, perhaps what America really wants is a more comprehensively moral society served by better institutional justice.