By Angela McArdle
Jurors delivered a sentence of life in prison without parole for Parkland shooter Nickolas Cruz on Thursday, and people are understandably awash with emotion. The 12 jurors struggled to look the victims’ families in the eyes as they delivered their verdict.
Most people struggle to comprehend the sheer, aberrant evil of a premeditated act like a mass shooting. Defense attorneys try to rationalize these killings with arguments about mental health, tragic upbringings, and extenuating circumstances. While these issues might have contributed to the dark psyche of many murderers, they don’t ease the pain of victims’ families or erase any of the shock and horror of mass murder.
Those left behind aren’t comforted by hearing about the sob story of the person who murdered their loved ones. They’re left incomplete and raw, with a burning desire to “do something” about the killer. Driven by righteous anger, our instinct is to meet death with death.
Yet, as sympathetic as I am to the families who grieve for their loved ones and yearn for justice, I do not believe the death penalty should ever be used, not even in cases as bad as the Parkland shooter.
For starters, our criminal justice system isn’t accurate 100 percent of the time. And if there is even the slightest possibility that we can be wrong, the death penalty makes that injustice irreversible. Consider the fact that since 1973, 190 death row inmates have been exonerated. That means 190 people were wrongfully sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. After languishing on death row for countless years, their verdicts and sentences were finally reversed. It’s bad enough to lose years of your life behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit, to have your life, your reputation, and your relationships torn apart. But to be sentenced to death in error? That’s almost as horrifying as the murderous act they were accused of.
There have been many death penalty cases with questionable evidence, like the 2017 case of Marcellus WIlliams of Missouri. DNA found under the nails of the murder victim did not match Mr. Williams’ DNA. His execution was stayed once, but he’s currently in limbo, waiting to find out if the Missouri Governor will exonerate him or move forward with his sentence.
And not everyone is fortunate enough to be exonerated before their sentence is carried out. There are at least 12 individuals in the United States who have been fully exonerated after they were put to death. The youngest person to be wrongfully executed was George Stinney, a 14-year-old boy sentenced to death by electric chair in South Carolina in 1944.
We have a broken criminal justice department with long wait times, harried, overworked public defenders, and an imperfect police force (to put it as diplomatically as possible). A state sanctioned death penalty simply can’t be trusted.
And if we have the emotional strength to move beyond the horrifying statistics of wrongful execution, perhaps it’s time we publicly acknowledge what we all know in our hearts: The death penalty doesn’t bring back our loved ones and statistically speaking, it doesn’t deter crime.
Originally published in Newsweek on 10/14/22