Crime and Punishment, American Style

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Here’s a word that we don’t use much: “condign.” It’s means “fitting” or “appropriate,” but these days we nearly always attach it to the concept of punishment, that is, “Does the punishment fit the crime?”

I thought of this word as I read about the sentencing of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., theater shooter, who opened fire on an audience, murdering 12 and injuring 70.

Holmes pled insanity. My students sometimes express their impression that it’s easy to get away with murder in America by pleading mental derangement. Not in this case. After a rigorous process that lasted all spring, the jury found Holmes guilty.

On August 26, Judge Carlos Samour sentenced Holmes to 12 life terms without the possibility of parole.

At Holmes’ sentencing, some of the frustration at not being able to do more to him rose to the surface. Eleven members of the jury had wanted to give Holmes the death penalty, but one juror’s reluctance destroyed the required unanimity. So the court did everything else to him that it could do legally.

Samour added symbolic measures, ruling that the life sentences will be served consecutively rather than concurrently — Holmes has to complete his first life sentence before he even begins his second.

In addition, the judge imposed another 3,318 years in prison for other crimes such as attempted murder.

Finally, Samour, who had treated Holmes respectfully throughout the trial, condemned him in contemptuous terms and gruffly dismissed him from his court.

And he didn’t admonish spectators and victims’ family members who cheered and clapped as Holmes was led away. Someone shouted, “Loser!”

At age 27, Holmes faces a long, bleak future. He could serve the rest of his life in solitary confinement. A former student of mine described his own eight years in solitary, saying that he didn’t think he was going to retain his sanity.

Permit the use of the politically incorrect term “crazy” for a moment … Holmes’ sentence is ironic: Because he couldn’t convince the jury that he’s crazy, he’s been condemned to a prison term that over the next 30, 40 or 50 years could very likely make him that way.

By comparison, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence seems almost merciful.

Has Holmes received a condign punishment? Does his punishment fit his crime?

I don’t know. For all its virtues — and it has many — our judicial system often gets it wrong. … And we persist as the last developed country with the death penalty, a punishment of questionable deterrence that we’ve never managed to apply impartially across lines of race, gender and social class.

So how can we be sure we get it right in a difficult case such as James Holmes’?

First, we continue to invest the time, energy and money — Holmes’ trial cost over $5 million and took more than 3 months — required to ensure that every defendant has every legal advantage due to him, even when we know he’s guilty.

And second, we maintain our limitations on what we’re willing to do to criminals in order to punish them. In some respects, the Holmes case is the story of the futility of any hope of giving our worst criminals what they truly deserve.

But the brilliance of our judicial system is that we refuse to sink to their vicious level. And if our effort to administer as much justice as we can without sliding back toward savagery leaves us feeling frustrated, that’s the worthy price we pay for a reasonably humane society.

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