Holmes Providing Real Death Penalty Litmus Test

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James Holmes in court on March 12, 2013 (credit: CBS)

James Holmes in court on March 12, 2013 (credit: CBS)

Written by Dominic Dezzutti

A very public, but possibly too public, offer of a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison from the defense attorneys representing James Holmes has created a very real test of Colorado’s death penalty policy. Even though prosecutors have officially filed a motion saying that the offer from defense attorneys was out of line, the idea is out there and will continue to remain in Colorado’s psyche.

It’s extremely hard to argue that the crime that Holmes is accused of is not worthy of capital punishment or that he was not the perpetrator of the crime. So those points are moot.

However, with the risk of a jury finding him not guilty be reason of insanity, we can see some of the risk of going for the death penalty that going for life in prison would apparently not offer. I am confident that the risk of such a strategy is the subject of many conversations among prosecutors.

Now, thanks to the defense attorneys’ announcement, this conversation is happening throughout Colorado.

And thanks to the recent debate over the death penalty in the Colorado legislature, we have been reminded that for better or worse, being sentenced to death in Colorado does not mean you may not live another few decades. Nathan Dunlap is now living his 19th year in captivity on Colorado’s Death Row.

The other element of the conversation that this case brings to light is the idea of denying a person who may be seeking publicity the opportunity for a lengthy and highly publicized trial.

If prosecutors decided to forego the death penalty and quietly put this man behind bars without a trial that is broadcast and analyzed on cable TV for months, would that be worth more than sentencing him to a death a few decades from now after a trial that makes him a world wide sensation?

I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions. I respect the role the victims’ families must play in this decision and the multitude of legal issues involved.

But with the defense offer going public, these and even more questions are now part of the public conversation. As a community, we can decide a great deal about the future of the death penalty in his state by looking at this case.

We may not arrive at a consensus anytime soon, but we owe it to ourselves to have the conversation and think about how we move forward. James Holmes will not be the last person accused of a heinous crime in Colorado. Even if we know we need to do this time, we need to be confident we’ll know what to do the next time as well.
About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

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