To give you a sense of how far the public debate over capital punishment has moved toward rationality over the past few decades you need only read Tuesday's house editorial in The Denver Post about a Colorado prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty in the Aurora theater shooting case. "Justice is death," the prosecutor had dramatically announced Monday, telling the world the punishment he will seek against James Holmes, the young man accused of killing 24 people and wounding scores more at a "Batman" movie on July 20, 2012.
No, the newspaper responded, "justice" is a whole lot more than that. Here we have a slam-dunk case of guilt, a mass casualty count, a thoroughly unsympathetic defendant, a gruesome crime of gun violence that made international headlines, and yet the paper of record in the venue of the attack still came out against capital punishment. In the surest sign yet of the rise of the practical argument against the death penalty, and in a surprising blow to the emotional power of victims' rights groups, here's what the Post's editorial writers offered:
In making that choice, [Arapahoe County District Attorney George] Brauchler unfortunately rejected an offer from the defense that would have put Holmes behind bars until the day he died -- an offer that would have spared the public the painful spectacle of a long trial as well as the possibility that Holmes' attorneys might successfully pursue an insanity plea.
In other words, we think the decision was a mistake. Ironically, the decision also means Holmes is likely to remain in the news for many years. If he is sentenced to death, his appeals will undoubtedly last into the 2020s at least and quite possibly into the 2030s...
The theater shootings were so unique that perhaps Holmes would never quite become just another prisoner if allowed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. But there is no doubt that his notoriety will be renewed repeatedly for years to come if he ends up on death row.
Send him away forever. Save the money it would take to sentence him to death. Deny him the notoriety he might claim by litigating his capital case through the courts for 15 years. And all the while spare the survivors and family members of the victims the psychic trauma of reliving that awful night over and over again in court. Today, especially in cases marked by mental illness, the Constitution demands a level of due process in capital cases which almost always precludes the sort of swift justice that prosecutors seek and victims' rights groups demand.