Archbishop Thomas Wenski

After COVID delays, jury trials are resuming. In fact, Nikolas Cruz, the young man arrested for the murders of the 17 victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, is about to go on trial — not for those murders but for having assaulted a jail guard. Nevertheless, it was an emotional and heart wrenching experience for members of the jury pool. Many asked to be excused because they did not believe they could be impartial in the case. From the TV news, it appeared that even Cruz was not unaffected.

More than three years after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting, emotions are still raw. Finding an impartial jury in the capital case against Nikolas Cruz will be even more difficult — and family members’ wounds, still unhealed, could be ripped open in what bodes to be a spectacle more than a trial. Yet the families of the victims as well as the greater community could be spared this grief, if state prosecutors would accept, as already proffered by the defense team, a guilty plea if he is spared the death penalty.

Why insist on the death penalty? Standing with the families of murder victims does not compel us as a society to seek another death in return. Their pain cannot be wiped away and the loss of life of their loved ones cannot be restored by another death. Mr. Cruz has previously confessed to the crime. His attorney has said that he has profound regrets for his actions, is remorseful and a “broken human being.” Given the ability of the state to protect society from further harm, Mr. Cruz is no longer a threat to society at large. 

A sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is a severe and just punishment that also allows for continued reflection on the grave harms he caused. Perhaps the state sees Mr. Cruz’s execution as just retribution and fitting revenge. Maybe so, but does not this only serve to further the cycle of violence which continues to harden the hearts and minds of even our youngest members? Multiple and systemic breakdowns within family services, police and the public school system failed us all. Seemingly nobody recognized the inadequacies in Mr. Cruz’s life or the state of his mental health. His numerous threats of violence that preceded the mass murder were addressed inadequately, if at all. 

The argument has been made that the application of the death penalty represents the legitimate self-defense of society from an unjust aggressor, i.e., the murderer. And, historically, the Church has conceded the point that the state can rightly apply capital punishment when absolutely necessary, i.e., when otherwise impossible to defend society. However, Pope St. John Paul II has pointed out in Evangelium Vitae (no. 56): given the organization of today’s penal system and the option of imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, such an “absolute necessity” is “practically non-existent.” Pope Francis expanded on John Paul II’s teaching describing the death penalty as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” that is “inadmissible” in all cases.

Even from a purely pragmatic or utilitarian point of view, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. And the death penalty is not cost effective. It costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than to execute him. 

Willful murder is a heinous crime; it cries to God for justice. Yet, while God certainly punished Cain, history’s first murderer, God did not require Cain’s life for having spilt Abel’s blood. (cf. Gn 4:15). Human dignity — that of the convicted as well as our own — is best served by not resorting to this extreme and unnecessary punishment. Modern society has the means to protect itself without the death penalty. 

There is no question that Mr. Cruz’s actions were heinous. The victims are forever gone to us. Their families and all those who fearfully witnessed this abhorrent act of bloodshed will forever be scarred by it. I presided at the funerals of two of the victims. I prayed for them then; and I pray for them and their families now. Their loss is incomprehensible.

They want justice — and justice can be served by accepting a guilty plea with life imprisonment. Accepting Mr. Cruz’s plea will bring the case to a close. It will allow those family members of his victims and others the opportunity to heal more promptly, rather than subjecting them to repeated and sensationalized reviews of this tragic crime.

A guilty plea and a sentence to life imprisonment would serve the common good of all by helping break our society’s spiral of violence, for an “eye for an eye” mentality will just end up making us all blind. 

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