On Murders Especially Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel

The death-sentence trial of the Parkland shooter was an exercise in finding explanations where none existed.

Abstract picture of red shapes radiating from black hole
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

Lately, it has felt difficult to evade the late-’80s countenance of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, an ordinary-looking and affectively blank man with neither the dramatic Jim Morrison locks of his fellow murderer Richard Ramirez nor the sleazy, sinister showmanship of their compatriot Ted Bundy. Rather, Dahmer’s recent star turn has emphasized his utter plainness as a kind of counterpoint to his inhuman, almost otherworldly violence—a familiar formula in serial-killer cultural production, in which the criminal’s charm, looks, or evident mundanity are balanced against their deeds to provoke a question: What can we make of the fact that such a person could do such things? I suspect that solving this riddle is the honest, if lurid, intention of so many artworks dedicated to Dahmer (and, in different measures, to killers such as Ramirez and Bundy, whose ostensible appeal serves as the counterpoint to their brutality). Acts of such unprecedented, unprovoked destruction cry out for meaning, and the mystique of any given perpetrator handily offers a potential source: Meaning is often hidden inside mysteries, and is perhaps so here.

Yet in so many meditations on these killers and their murders, one never seems to find more than a recapitulation of the crimes or life of the criminal, with varying degrees of attention appointed to suggest sites of potential meaning—the serial killer’s troubled past, his warped notions of love, his explanation of his own purity of purpose or grandiosity of character. Therein might lie some information that could supply clues about these most spectacular of killings, which would at least situate them in an orderly moral matrix, where things with meaningful effects happen for meaningful reasons. But the answer itself—the piece of knowledge that renders the killer or his motives intelligible—never comes. The experience of watching serial-killer shows or documentaries is therefore almost always identical: One now knows more about the grisly nature of what took place, but without the satisfaction of understanding why it had to happen or what to think of a world in which such things occasionally transpire. The viewers—and the victims’ families—pay the price for investigating the problem, but they are swindled out of a verdict.

This is because there is no reason, and no meaning, in wanton destruction. It is exactly what it appears to be. It does not entail a greater theory, purpose, or truth of some kind that we could use to our benefit, for prevention or healing, if only we could discover it. It does not respond to the demands of morality or reason, because a moral, reasonable person would not commit acts of vile degradation against other people. What the most spectacular of killers do directly infringes upon the sphere of meaning by eliminating its more common sources in our lives: relationships, plans for the future, love. Dahmer had no reasons, because he was himself a foreigner to reason; what he did had no meaning, but rather, destroyed it. You could climb inside his mind and have no clearer sense than he did of what anything in his miserable life meant, and you would be the worse for it.

Case in point: This year, the state of Florida put Nikolas Cruz on trial in order to sentence him to death for the murder of 17 and the attempted murder of 17 more during his 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Cruz had already pleaded guilty, at the time of his sentencing trial, to every count the state had arrayed against him. Everyone knew what he had done. All that was left for a jury to decide was whether, all mitigating factors in the young man’s troubled existence accounted for, Cruz’s murders were “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel”—or premeditated with a special disregard for any pretense of justification—according to Florida’s capital-punishment statute.

In order to make the case for killing Cruz, the state relied on a meticulous rehashing of the man’s crimes, including an in-person tour through the mostly untouched and closed school building where the murders took place, a thorough review of surveillance-camera and cellphone footage of the event itself, and a careful reconstruction of how injured survivors felt at the moment they were assaulted. Somewhere in those accounts or in the autopsy photos or in the witness testimony, the prosecution contended, was proof that Cruz’s murders were of a unique and distinct type that would, once revealed through close consideration, necessitate another event, the killing of the killer—and that through that event, some sense of justice would be restored to a community of people who had been radically, catastrophically robbed of such by the murders themselves.

Yet the jury was unable to arrive at a consensus that Cruz should die, with three of the 12 refusing to vote for his death. The reason for the defection appears to be that the prosecution’s case did not, in fact, conflict with the defense’s in any significant sense. One could believe everything the prosecution said—that Cruz’s murders were as unthinkable, as profoundly destructive, as evil as they seemed—without disagreeing with the defense’s contention that Cruz had done such irrational, unthinkable things because he is, and has been since birth, an irrational, unthinking person. “His brain is broken,” Cruz’s attorney Melisa McNeill said in her opening statement to the jury. “He’s a damaged human being. And that’s why these things happen.” The defense needed only one juror to realize that that sentiment is entirely compatible with, and in fact credited by, the prosecution’s assertion that what Cruz did was “without any pretense of moral or legal justification.” Three eventually did.

Their refusal to sentence Cruz to death has already prompted talk of striking jury unanimity, a relatively new requirement in Florida sentencing law, from the state’s statute—as though the frustrated momentum of the prosecution’s case must find some other outlet. (Had it won, its energy would’ve likely had to be held in reserve for years, maybe decades, of appeals, as is so common in capital cases.) In the meantime, the trial’s participants and witnesses, the general public included, know everything they knew before the lengthy meditation on Cruz’s crimes—but worse, more painfully.

We live in spectacularly violent times, not in the sense that our era is more violent than any other before, but rather, that our episodes of especially atrocious violence tend also to become spectacles that play out in the press and culture long after the carnage is over. Part of our fascination is grim curiosity, and part is based, I think, in the sense that some moral work must be left undone, some central mystery left unresolved, if no species of detailed explanation or court action can ever really answer the limitlessness of the void they create in our shared lives. Still, we look into the emptiness. One draws closer and closer, but never comes nearer to anything.