Three years after James Holmes stormed a theater in Aurora, Colorado, killed 12 people and wounded 70 more, a jury sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. By sparing Holmes the death penalty, the jury followed a national trend of diminishing the capital punishment's role in American criminal justice.
The jury of three men and nine women deliberated for less than a day before reaching their verdict. Only a unanimous jury can impose a death sentence, meaning only one juror would have been needed to spare Holmes’ life. The jury was not polled after the sentences were announced.
A Denver Post poll found Coloradans supported the death penalty for Holmes by a 2-to-1 margin. Despite public support for capital punishment, Colorado rarely uses the death penalty: Three defendants sit on the state’s death row; the last execution took place in 1997.
Had Holmes been sentenced to death, his case likely would have languished in the appellate system for years or even decades. Central to his defense strategy were well-documented claims of mental illness, though prosecutors disputed the extent of his illness and the role it played on the night he attacked the theater. During closing statements in the penalty phase, Holmes’ defense counsel Tamara Brady cited the convicted shooter’s mental illness and urged jurors to spare his life.
The year 2015 has been mixed for the capital punishment debate. Nebraska legislators overrode Governor Pete Ricketts’s veto to abolish the death penalty in May, though Ricketts is now leading a petition drive to put the issue on the next ballot. Juries in Texas, the nation’s most-prolific modern wielder of capital punishment, have not handed down a single death sentence so far this year. But in Massachusetts, a state that formally abolished the death penalty more than 30 years ago, a Boston jury sentenced marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death on federal charges in May.
These upheavals in American capital punishment do not signal its imminent abolition, but the trajectory appears clear. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a major challenge to Oklahoma’s troubled lethal-injection protocol in Glossip v. Gross last month, upholding the use of midazolam, the drug used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. But Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the ruling by effectively renouncing the death penalty in all circumstances—a promising sign for the abolition movement. The justices’ move comes amid a nearly two-decade-long trend of fewer death sentences and fewer executions.
This debate raged largely beyond the courtroom in Aurora, where all attention was on Holmes and the suffering he brought to an entire community. He reportedly showed little emotion after the verdict was read; the loved ones of his victims wept in the courtroom. They will have a chance to address the presiding judge before he hands down a formal sentence in the next few weeks.