Today's Dallas Morning News publishes the OpEd, "Seeking death penalty in Aurora killings is wrong," by Pete Earley. He's a former journalist and the author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.
As the father of an adult with a severe mental illness, I am dismayed by a Colorado prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in the Aurora movie theater attack.
Attorneys for gunman James Eagan Holmes offered to have their client plead guilty in return for a life sentence without parole. That was not good enough for Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler.
After consulting with “800 victims and their families” on the July shootings that left 12 dead and dozens wounded, Brauchler declared that for Holmes, “justice is death.”
Only the most egregious cases should merit the death penalty, and despite the monstrosity of these shootings, executing a defendant who was receiving psychiatric care and who appears to have a severe mental illness violates that high standard.
My son got sick when he was 22. Those of us with mentally ill family members have seen how schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can distort our loved ones’ thinking and sometimes cause them to break the law. Their actions are symptoms of their disorders.
Mental illness does not excuse murder — a fact that Holmes’ attorneys readily acknowledged. But murders spawned in psychosis should be adjudicated differently from those for profit, jealousy or revenge.
Our legal system does a poor job of dealing with mentally ill defendants. The standard legal test is whether the defendant knew at the time of the crime the difference between right and wrong and whether he understood the consequences of his actions. But that’s often a fool’s reasoning when applied to an ill person’s mind.