THE DEATH PENALTY, INSANITY, AND THE MIRROR THEY HOLD UP
In 1967, my father, then Governor of California, knelt in prayer with his pastor Reverend Donn Moomaw, asking God for guidance on the death penalty case that was before him. Aaron Mitchell had shot and killed a police officer during a robbery and had been sentenced to death. Governor Edmund Brown, my father’s predecessor, hadn’t commuted the sentence but also hadn’t allowed it to be carried out. My father would later refer to this as a dark night of his soul. The night Mitchell was executed anti-death penalty demonstrators stood outside the prison with signs, chanting their opposition to the decision. A story came out sometime later that in another robbery, the store owner was held at gunpoint, thought he was going to be killed, and said to the gunman, “If you kill me you’ll get the death penalty.” The gunman fled. My father told that story many times as a way of saying that the death penalty is a deterrent, but I think he was trying to balance out the wrenching in his soul that he had put a man to death.
I was 15 at the time, and in the black and white thinking of a teenager, I was absolutely opposed to the death penalty – with the emphasis on absolutely. As I’ve gotten older, as mass shootings have mounted and become almost commonplace in America, I don’t think there are any absolutes when it comes to the death penalty. It’s quicksand, and the only way to deal with it, to think about it, is to recognize that.
On February 14, 2018 – Valentine’s Day – Nikolas Cruz, then 19, methodically went through Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting people. He had written out what he planned to do and he followed his own plans. After the first round of shootings, he went back through the halls, killing whoever still clung to life. One parent of a student who was killed has said the only reason Cruz stopped is that he ran out of people to kill. And yet, a jury decided not to kill him. The other day, parents whose children were murdered by Cruz were allowed to address him, and it was heart-wrenching – their pain, their anguish, their rage directed at a person who sat there emotionless. It’s probably the same look he had on his face when he methodically murdered 17 innocent people.
I understand the feeling that several of the jurors, and others, have that murder – in this case 17 murders – can’t justify killing another human being. On a spiritual level, I agree, and I hope that we all would. But we don’t only live in a spiritual realm; we also live in the gritty, messy swamp of being human. And as human beings, sometimes you have to grab onto the darkness to fight the darkness that has come for you.
The jurors who did not vote for the death penalty were swayed by the mitigating factors in the Cruz trial, which included the defense claims of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and mental disorders due to neglect during Nikolas Cruz’s short life. Basically, the defense presented an insanity defense without calling it that. I have some personal experience with the insanity defense since that’s how John Hinckley avoided imprisonment. This is another murky area. Legally, the insanity defense means that the person doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong when they committed the crime. But someone can be insane and still know, when they are shooting other people, that it’s wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that John Hinckley was and is mentally unstable. I also have no doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing on the cold March day when he shot 4 people and that the wrongness of the act was part of its appeal to him. Nikolas Cruz may very well be suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other disorders, but he was methodical, deliberate, and chillingly aware of what he was doing on that Valentine’s Day. He has said as much.
There are no simple answers when it comes to the death penalty. The deliberations over it, the decisions, hold up a mirror to who we are as human beings, and who we are as a society. It is true that innocent people have been executed. It is also true that there is a racial component to who ends up on Death Row. It is also true that there are cases which are so obviously a portrait of sheer evil that spiritual and moral positions have to be re-evaluated when confronting that wall of darkness. Somehow, I doubt that if Nikolas Cruz had been sentenced to death, protesters of the death penalty would be standing vigil on the day of his execution.