photo courtesy the Seattle City Council
On the same day thousands of young people in my Florida hometown and across the nation demonstrated for an end to school violence, prosecutors in Fort Lauderdale were in court seeking to add one more fatality to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Politically driven prosecutors may overlook the irony, but I doubt the same will be true of history when the Parkland, Florida school massacre is remembered.
Nikolas Cruz was arraigned Wednesday on the indictment charging him with 17 counts each of murder and attempted murder, one for each of the fatalities and wounded survivors of the Valentine’s Day shooting. His lawyers told Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that the defendant “stands mute” to the charges; the judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
The only goal defense lawyers have set for themselves is to keep Cruz alive. They have already said Cruz is willing to plead guilty to the charges and accept the prospect of life in prison without parole under consecutive sentences, if only prosecutors would take the death penalty off the table. The prosecution has instead declared its firm intention to seek capital punishment.
Thus the prospect of the victims’ families enduring the spectacle of a trial, the uncertainty of a jury deliberating on a presumed post-conviction sentence, and appeals that could easily stretch out for a decade or more. If by some magic the death penalty were to be imposed immediately after sentencing, all it would get us is another dead young person.
Who benefits from that?
Not the families of Cruz’s victims, whose losses will be undiminished. Not the community or the world at large; most mass shooters don’t expect to survive their crimes, so they certainly are not deterred by the prospect of execution, especially one potentially long deferred. Not the citizens of the state of Florida, who will be burdened with the costs of the trial, defense, appeals and finally the execution itself, all while we are left to question whether authorities are trying to compensate for their own shortcomings through the ritualized killing of a deeply disturbed young man.
What of the effect on Cruz’s younger brother, who committed no offense but who must watch his last surviving relative threatened with death by the state? What of the memory of Cruz’s mother, who by all accounts fruitlessly tried to address his problems before she succumbed to illness last fall, leaving him alone in a world he could not manage?
Nikolas Cruz is no longer a threat to anyone but himself. Yet spineless prosecutors – afraid to confront criticism for standing up against vengeful bloodlust in the interests of justice – are willing to add more pain to the mountain of suffering Cruz built in in Parkland.
Florida was briefly among the states without the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down its capital sentencing statute as unconstitutional, though as I wrote at the time, the reprieve was destined to be short-lived. Florida has amended the statute twice since that ruling. The current law requires a sentencing jury to unanimously recommend a death sentence before a judge may impose one. But no amount of revision can ever make the death penalty just.
Capital punishment should be abolished not so much for what it does to those who are punished, but for what it does to the rest of us. Nothing makes that clearer than the contrast between the young people who marched against violence on those sunny Florida streets and the adults who claimed to act on their behalf inside the courthouse walls.