Late Friday, attorneys for the man responsible for one of the worst school shootings in recent history dropped a bombshell–their client is willing to accept a sentence of life in prison if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table.
On Thursday, Nikolas Cruz admitted to police that he was the man who mowed down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; near Fort Lauderdale. Less than 24 hours later, Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, announced that Cruz was willing to plead guilty in return for a sentence of life in prison. He told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that allowing Cruz to plead guilty would help the community begin the process of healing.
“There is no way anyone can minimize the tragedy of what took place. It’s time to mourn; it’s time to figure out how to prevent future tragedies. He should spend the rest of his life in prison, but he does not deserve to die.”
Finkelstein went on to say that with Cruz’ guilt beyond dispute, there was no sense in having a trial simply to decide whether Cruz will live or die. He expressed a similar sentiment to The Miami Herald, saying that Cruz was willing to plead guilty for the sake of the victims and the community.
“We’re willing to plead guilty and let the families and community begin to heal. Nobody sees any benefit from a trial.”
For now, Broward County state’s attorney, or district attorney, Michael Satz hasn’t commented publicly on which way he will go. But state attorney general Pam Bondi appeared to turn up the heat on Satz to push for the death penalty when she appeared on Fox News’ “Outnumbered” on Friday. Watch here.
Bondi told host Harris Faulkner that she’s “certain” Broward County prosecutors will seek the death penalty, considering that he walked into a school and killed 17 people–including 14 students.
Hopefully Finkelstein’s announcement lessens that certainty. By definition, the death penalty amounts to punishing barbarism with barbarism. But it is especially so when prosecutors pursue the death penalty even when a murderer is willing to plead guilty.
We’ve seen this happen in two very recent and very high-profile cases. Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev wanted to plead guilty within hours of jury selection beginning in his 2015 trial, but federal prosecutors refused to take the death penalty off the table. Likewise, Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof wanted to plead guilty to both federal and state charges, but both the Justice Department and Charleston County prosecutors ultimately decided to pursue the death penalty.
Theoretically, Tsarnaev and Roof could have still pleaded guilty. But no defense attorney can in honor or good conscience allow their client to plead guilty with a death sentence still hanging over them. It would amount to pushing their client out the window.
The argument that has been most commonly advanced in favor of the death penalty is that certain crimes are so heinous that those who commit them must forfeit their right to live. In effect, refusing to take the death penalty off the table even when a murderer is willing to plead guilty adds a fundamentally un-American corollary to that argument. Prosecutors who take that line are effectively saying that there are certain crimes that are so heinous that those who commit them also effectively forfeit their right to surrender. They seem to forget that even those who are manifestly guilty still have rights that must be respected. Simply put, no one is below the law.
There doesn’t seem to be any real difference between this line and the arguments used to justify two of the biggest black eyes in our nation’s recent history–the waterboarding of terrorism suspects, and the horrible mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Supposedly, the terrorism suspects at Guantanamo as well as the Iraqi soldiers imprisoned in Abu Ghraib deserved to be tortured for murdering innocent Americans.
This view also amounts to political posturing of the worst type. If you’ll remember, just weeks after Roof was convicted at his federal trial, state prosecutors finally came to their senses and reached a plea deal that allowed Roof to plead guilty to state charges. Charleston County Solicitor (district attorney) Scarlett Wilson, who famously declared that Roof “committed the ultimate crime” and therefore deserved “the ultimate punishment,” admitted that all she wanted was an insurance policy in the event Roof’s federal death sentence gets overturned on appeal.
Hopefully Satz is not of that mind. If he is willing to take the death penalty off the table, it will allow the victims and their families to have a sense of closure. In all likelihood, it may take a year before Cruz is brought to trial. Moreover, even the tiniest mistake at trial could derail any death sentence. Additionally, letting Cruz plead guilty and accept a life sentence will allow the sentencing hearing to be about the victims, not about the myriad problems Cruz faced over the years.
Lately, it seems that we have forgotten that the purpose of the criminal justice system is not to punish the guilty, but to protect the innocent. Satz has a chance to reverse this dangerous course by accepting Cruz’ offer to plead guilty.
(featured image courtesy Formulanone, part of public domain)