The jury, the death penalty, and James Holmes

It was a bit of a shock twist yesterday, August 7, when the jury in State of Colorado v. James Holmes failed to turn over a required unanimous verdict in any of the 24 death-eligible charges that would’ve left Holmes eligible for the death penalty. In response, as we’ve seen with Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman, many are denigrating the jury.

According to reports there was only one holdout juror who was refusing to hand down a sentence of death, while two others apparently wavered. It’s a paradox I’ve seen time and again when I’ve studied capital punishment. A person who says at the start of a trial that they are willing to impose the death penalty in a case may waver when the time actually comes to decide if that sentence should be imposed. It is actually one of the striking features of the capital punishment sentencing process and the primary reason it exists. As heinous as Holmes’ actions were, apparently they weren’t heinous enough to convince one of the twelve jurors to impose the death penalty. This is actually a good thing, because it is more likely this one person was not voting for the death penalty out of emotion. And this ensures that cases where someone is sentenced to death are cases that ring so true in a person that there is no hesitation by any reasonable juror. Even in Holmes’ case, a person may reasonably be certain in a sentence of death or reasonably hesitant.

A sentence of death is not one that should be handed down out due to emotion or out of any need or desire for vengeance on anyone’s part.

Hands up if you remember the case against Terry Nichols. For those who have forgotten — or never knew to begin with — Terry Nichols is the convicted co-conspirator to the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing. He also was twice exonerated of the death penalty: once by a Federal jury and again by a jury in Oklahoma. He is now spending the rest of his days at the super-max prison known as ADX. Even with the heinousness of that event, and the overwhelming evidence of Nichols’ involvement, two juries couldn’t summon whatever was needed to sentence him to death. And the only reason the State of Oklahoma put him on trial is the fact a Federal jury did not sentence him to death. The people of Oklahoma wanted him dead, and petitioned out for a trial of emotion, and thankfully the Oklahoma jury would not capitulate to that.

The law requires a unanimous verdict, and as much as the remainder would’ve liked to see Holmes sentenced to death, they also couldn’t bully the holdout into a sentence of death. The jury would’ve likely been polled to confirm the verdict was unanimous, in which case the lone holdout would’ve been required under oath to say that their vote of “death” was not genuine, in which case the judge would’ve vacated the verdict.

That is the way of it.

While the death penalty has a rather cavalier history in the United States, we have since grown to recognize it to not be something to just be thrown around. And while I would agree with many other Americans that Holmes would be a case worthy of the death penalty, I must still recognize that it is not my decision to make, and I must respect the decision made by those with that authority.

One notion too many forget is that the Court of Law does not answer to the People. A jury does not answer to the People either. In the courtroom, the jury is the ultimate arbiter of, well, everything. All notions of law and fact are rendered in a verdict with all the detail stripped out and ample room for speculation left. We’ve seen it time and again. Casey Anthony. Darren Wilson (grand jury, not actual trial). George Zimmerman.

And when the jury does not rule the way the people feel the jury should rule, the jury is denigrated, and sometimes the entire jury system is attacked by extension. That is what we must avoid.

Disagree with the jury’s decision all you want, but the moment you start attacking the jury itself simply for not liking an outcome, you are, by extension, attacking everyone’s right to a jury under the Sixth Amendment. You can disagree with the jury without attacking the jury, yet too many seem unwilling to do such. If a person doesn’t come to the same conclusion as us, we conclude there is something wrong with the person as opposed to their reasoning. Again, we’ve seen the same with Casey Anthony (I wrote about that here) and George Zimmerman.

My hope for the future is that the people will let just this case go and won’t call for the Department of Justice to exercise dual sovereignty as a means of exposing Holmes to the death penalty again.