(NewsNation) — Two major legal decisions came down Thursday, and both raise the question of what justice is. One is easy to explain, the other is hard.
Easy is the Jan. 6 committee’s decision: a unanimous vote to subpoena former President Donald Trump testify before the panel. A number of Republicans testified to troubling plans known to, encouraged and otherwise desired by Trump about refusing to respect the election outcome. Questions abound about his knowledge and actions during the actual violence at our Capitol.
The panel is almost all Democrats; they clearly have the power to call Trump to testify and they have the motivation as well. It it fair under the law? Yes. Is it worth it? That question is more relevant given this is a political setting, and I say no.
He will fight it, and even if he testifies, his account of that day will not really advance any case against him and will certainly foment tension. But those are mostly political considerations.
The next case is much harder to analyze, and it’s the verdict against the Parkland school shooter. A jury decided Thursday to sentence him to life in prison rather than give him the death sentence. It’s a hard verdict to rationalize.
This guy evokes every instinct for vengeance. Most of the families who lost loved ones want him put to death. They say if this isn’t the time for the death penalty, when is it? That’s a hard question to answer. There is a question of law, a drive of emotion and a stubborn suggestion about morality.
This is a bad guy who admits to doing horrible things to innocent kids and staff on purpose — 14 kids, three staff, more than a dozen injured. Many survived but will never be the same.
There was no trial on the merits. He pleaded guilty to all counts. And the jury believed unanimously that the prosecutors had shown that the aggravating factors required under the law to trigger the death penalty exist. But the law is newly exacting in Florida.
Florida has had the death penalty since 1827; it is the home of “old sparky” — the electric chair.
But where are we as a society? States have been moving away from capital punishment. More than half still have it but not all use it. It’s been abolished in 107 countries, but the U.S., Japan and China are among some of the lone holdouts in aggressively pursuing killing as justice.
Why? Two reasons: mistakes and a moral dilemma.
Florida has killed 100 people, almost all for far less than the Parkland massacre. Florida has also had 30 exonerees on death row, meaning one in every three inmates killed has been innocent. It’s scary but irrelevant because the man in this case admitted to his actions.
Yet for the history of killing, only 35% of Floridians are in favor of the death penalty, and changes in the law reflect this change in opinion. For decades, the law required only seven out of 12 jurors to recommend the death penalty, which would be decided by the judge.
In 2017, the law changed, requiring a jury unanimously agree that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors. It was set up to favor a minority vote, essentially making it harder for someone to get the death penalty.
In 2020, the Florida Supreme Court tried to change it back, but lawmakers refused. In Parkland, the jury found prosecutors showed the murders included aggravating factors of being heinous, atrocious, cruel. However, aggravating factors have to outweigh mitigating factors, which reduce the severity of the acts.
One juror found mitigating factors including the killer having brain damage from the mother’s excessive drinking, being bullied and having a slew of disorders and mental illness as outweighing the aggravating factors. One vote would be enough under the law. Two more agreed.
This is not that unusual. A move toward mercy is seen in states even when they pursue capital punishment. In Colorado in 2015, a man who killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater got life in prison.
The hard part for many is accepting that one juror keeps this guy alive when so many who have been damaged want death, and that the law allows for that. Politicians are protesting, playing to the righteous indignation, and that makes sense.
Our politics are not about playing against popularity, or discounting anger, but rather fomenting anger. But we should ask the hard question: when is it OK to kill? Is it ever OK? Is man ever allowed to decide who lives and dies? Christians and other religions struggle with this and have a range of answers.
The fifth commandment is thou shalt not kill, suggesting only God decides who lives and dies. But we have been killing people as a society pretty much from the beginning. It is maybe the toughest tug on our sense of right and wrong: a social instruction that killing can be OK, and not just in self-defense.
The desire for vengeance is hard-wired, especially when it comes to protecting the weak — our kids and innocents, especially when done by someone on purpose out of evil intent.
We see how confused this can get. Abortion is wrong but killing a murderer is right? Why? Because some people deserve it. That’s the answer, isn’t it? Says who? Says us. Ultimately, the law dictates what our social instruction will be.
Some see the death penalty as beneath us, a social instruction in brutality that undermines the goal of civility, and yet it is allowed under our Constitution and in the state of Florida. It often feels like the only satisfaction, an eye for an eye as the Bible provides.
Now, one juror was joined by two others in finding that under the law, the standard was not met, in obvious defiance to what the community seems to want.
So is it the right decision? The law was followed, but is it justice, defined as fairness under the law? Even though he seems to be the worst of the worst, even though the people most affected want it, is that caving to a mob?
I often think to myself: What would I do to someone badly hurt, let alone shot up and murdered, someone I love. What would you do? I think there is a good chance I would try to kill them. What does that mean? Is that me at my best? It’s hard to say yes. Should our social instruction reinforce what we want at our most angry and emotional?
Many victims’ families want vengeance, but many more have told me over the years that it doesn’t matter to them because nothing brings back a loved one, or that life in prison if they are denied comforts is worse than death. In fact, many on death row say they would rather die.
So if the point is to punish, is death too good for people like the Parkland mass murderer?
It is hard to see all the families in pain again, and yes, it feels this guy is getting away with something. But the law was followed, and one juror is enough. It is designed, like many of our criminal laws, to allow for a high bar to punish, let alone the ultimate punishment.
Ultimately, the answer comes down to what we want to be about, and that can be a tough question to answer, especially when you’re in pain.