The way the death penalty is applied in the United States makes no sense, and there is no clearer evidence of this than the decision last week to seek it against James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 58 others in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer.
Holmes is guilty. He was arrested outside the theater with a stash of weapons, and his attorneys recently wrote in court papers that he would agree to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, without the possibility of parole.
It's an offer the district attorney of Arapahoe County, George Brauchler, should have taken. Instead, the people of Aurora, along with hundreds of surviving victims and family members, will face perhaps decades of uncertainty and legal battles. They will pay millions of tax dollars in court costs that could instead help treat the mentally ill and provide assistance to crime victims.
The death penalty in this country is immoral, costly and arbitrary. It has to end. Until it does, authorities must use common sense, taking into account emotional and financial costs, as they decide how to apply it.
Death penalty supporters say the real issue is that the process should be sped up, that those convicted of capital crimes are taking advantage of their due process rights. But that argument fails to reckon with some very real complexities: that we have, most likely, executed innocent men. That capital punishment is applied unevenly based on geography, race and class. And that prosecution of capital crimes committed by the mentally ill require an extraordinary level of scrutiny.
The last issue is the applicable one in Holmes' case. The man is, almost by definition, mentally ill. It's nearly impossible to imagine a sane person committing these horrific acts.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that executing mentally ill prisoners -- those who are unable to understand their punishment -- is unconstitutional. It's essential to have a thorough and thoughtful legal process for making this determination.
Some surviving victims, along with friends and family members of the deceased, wish to see Holmes executed. That's understandable, but it shouldn't necessarily be the final word. Media reports indicate that other victims, friends and family feel differently. Whose opinion gets more weight?
We'd argue: neither. Officials charged with making this choice should base it on what's best for their community.
Pursuing the death penalty -- with no guarantee of the result -- is not worth the financial cost or the emotional anguish of reliving this event, year after year. But don't just listen to us, 1,300 miles from the site of the shooting. In Colorado, the editorial boards of the Durango Herald, in the southwest corner of the state, and the Denver Post reached the same conclusion.
The government should accept Holmes' plea, lock him up and destroy the key. That's the surest way for this community -- or any other -- to find a way to heal from this tragedy.