After a highly watched, blunder-filled trial, Parkland, Florida, school shooter Nikolas Cruz was spared the death penalty when a jury sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Thursday.
The move shocked the families of the 17 students and teachers who were gunned down in the February 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with many of the victims’ families, in the sentencing’s aftermath, saying they felt justice hadn’t been served. Some questioned the death penalty’s purpose in what they thought was a “perfect case” to justify putting the defendant to death.
“What do we have the death penalty for?” says Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, died at the hands of Cruz, the New York Times reports.
Is there a place for the death penalty in society today? Northeastern experts say unequivocally, as a matter of practicality and principle: no.
Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice, says he believes in this case, life in prison “serves the purposes of condemnation and public safety,” noting that death sentences often needlessly draw out cases in ways that often leads to more suffering.
“As a practical matter, death sentences are often overturned and produce prolonged post-conviction litigation, which can be agonizing for the victims’ families,” Medwed says. “This way, the case will largely remain out of the news and it may help families achieve a measure of closure.”
For centuries, scholars have debated whether those guilty of even the most heinous crimes deserve to be put to death—a question that brings to bear issues of morality and philosophy. Contemporary thinking largely errs on the side of mercy, with one central argument being that the death penalty violates a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Those who defend capital punishment laws in the past have claimed that the death penalty deters violent crime more meaningfully than life sentences do, says Michael Meltsner, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern. That argument, Metsner says, simply doesn’t hold up.
“They also warned that public safety would be impacted by abolition, and that all we had to do was execute ‘the worst of the worst,’” Meltsner says. “The jury’s verdict in the Parkland case is just another example that today these arguments ring hollow.”
Indeed, data shows that most U.S. citizens support capital punishment but at the same time believe that executions don’t deter people from committing crimes. Moreover, the executions take place more or less at random, Meltsner says. The U.S. has between 15,000 and 20,000 homicides a year but only executes “an arbitrarily chosen handful from a few counties in a few states.”
“Given the sporadic and random implementation of the death penalty, it is simply impossible to make a rational argument that capital punishment dissuades people from violence or indeed advances any legitimate social policy,” he says.
The public debate over whether capital punishment still has a place in the U.S. legal system will continue on for years to come—even as the use of the death penalty declines, as it has for the last 25 years.
“Our death penalty increasingly resembles the human sacrifice practices of our ancestors,” Meltsner says. “We can’t use it consistently, but our politicians and judges are afraid to let it go.”