I remember sitting outside one day, having coffee and talking to a friend about his insurance practice. He directed my attention to a four-way traffic light, where a guy was waiting to cross the street.
“See that guy over there?” he asked. “He thinks he’s going to make it to the other side of the crosswalk.”
Of course the guy did, but the implication was heavy—every day is filled with people leaving the house to address the most routine of activities, never to see their front door again. Activities like crossing the street or going to the movies.
James Holmes has finally been charged with 24 counts of murder and 116 counts of attempted murder during a preliminary hearing in Denver this morning.* Somehow this leaves me entirely unsatisfied.
I don’t personally know any of his innocent victims or their families, but as a human being, I feel this. How can you not? What went down was a jaw-dropping display of cowardice and cruelty: a gutless, headline-craving nut-job, armed to the teeth, ambushes a crowd in the middle of a late night movie, disarms and disorients them with tear gas and then begins shooting them randomly, ending a dozen lives in an instant and all but destroying hundreds others with zero remorse. Innocent men, women and (somewhat surprisingly) children, slaughtered in cold blood.
Incidentally, I don’t buy the arguments of those who carp that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had looser concealed weapons laws. By that logic, we can also say that had the law allowed people to walk around with Bengal tigers on leashes, that shit probably wouldn’t have happened either.
The first, and perhaps only satisfying aspect to the story is that Holmes didn’t off himself before the cops got to him. In fact, he acted like a guy who was fully prepared to be apprehended. Of course, because Holmes is teeming with cowardice, he booby-trapped the ever-loving shit out of his apartment in the hopes of taking out more innocent people while he was safely at a distance. Thankfully, they got him. Now what?
As a former attorney who practiced for two harrowing and soul-whipping years, I understand just enough to be dangerous. I don’t pretend to understand all the permutations of the intersection of law and fact and the dimensions of available punishment. I do know that Colorado offers the death penalty to guys like Holmes, which they hand down for first degree murder convictions only—killings involving things like excessive cruelty, lying in wait (like a trap or ambush) or killing a police officer. Two of those fact patterns are mightily present and if Holmes’ booby trapping plans had come to fruition, the third would have been in play as well.
At my very core, I’m anti-death penalty. The stated purpose behind that punishment is as a deterrent to those who would commit first degree murder. But take a look around the prisons of the US and you’ll see that the death penalty is deterring two things: jack and shit. Death rows across the US are jam-packed with vicious, cold-blooded killers who could not have given two shits about consequences. See, the death penalty didn’t deter them because they didn’t think they’d get caught.
Now, on the other side of the coin, there is the eye-for-an-eye element, and this actually makes more sense to me in a justice system of checks and balances. Nothing balances out one human life like another. But in executions, the killer gets a final meal, a visit with friends and family and a final statement before being quickly and often compassionately dispatched under the care of a doctor. I’m not aware of any killers who extended those same courtesies to their victims prior to taking their life.
And so I don’t begrudge those who are pro-death penalty; especially those who have been personally affected by such a tragedy. I understand the pro-side of the argument and at a gut level, I understand the need for payback. And look, I’m a guy—I love revenge fantasies. I’d love to see them tie the killer to a stake and let the entire state of Colorado line up and punch him in the face. But I fear that Holmes is going to live out the rest of his cursed life with three square meals a day, cable television and all the meds his body can hold.
First, the guy looks clinically certifiable. With his carrot-top hair and glassy-eyed, vacant stare, he looks about as together as a strainer full of water. Certainly the extravagant planning behind the executions establish that he was of sound enough mind to carry out a fairly well-planned attack, and by that standard, the district attorney will insist that they try him as a sane person. But I fear that the evidence will continue to mount that will tip the scale in favor of an insanity defense. They’ll dig up therapy records and perform batteries of tests that will reveal him to be entirely disconnected from our notions of right and wrong. His lawyers will argue that sure, he did the killing, but we can’t hold him liable because he was bat-shit crazy and yeah, he planned everything with military precision, but that he was so far removed from reality that he could not appreciate the weight of his own actions. Take one look at him and tell me they won’t get some traction with that argument.
Secondly, even if he is deemed sane and therefore competent to stand trial, the trial will likely take years and even then, assuming convictions are returned, he goes on to death row, where he could happily linger for many years, reading People magazine and corresponding with pen pals. Meanwhile, the families he ruined carry the burden into every second of every day, staring at chairs where their loved ones once sat and holding phones that will never again ring with their son or daughter’s smiling face popping up on the screen.
Holmes might be crazy but I hope they still lock him up and throw away the key. I hope the Colorado justice system works and that the families and friends of the victims find some solace in both the process and final resolution, whether that be life imprisonment, insane asylums or the electric chair.
In the meantime, I need to stop reading about it. I have a sinking suspicion that time will reveal this to be a truly senseless crime, with no satisfying resolution and no full measure of closure. Naive as this sounds, I think that fucking sucks.
*There are some who refuse to use his name when referencing the matter, lest the killer find some measure of warped pride in reading his name in blogs and online features. I have adopted this very strategy when writing about the murder of former Pantera guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott. In this case, Holmes’ name is everywhere and I don’t feel like I’m contributing to any problems by referring to him directly.