I’m pretty much a law and order guy. Last week I wrote, not for the first time, that we should Lock Up the Bad Guys.
But one thing I’ve never liked is the unseemly spectacle of victim statements near the end of murder trials. Under these made-for-television events the family and friends of murder victims get to taunt the convicted killer. I certainly understand the raw emotions of the victims. I’m not blaming them. But this should not be part of our system.
It’s undignified, it almost always violates decorum and, most importantly, it transforms our impartial system of justice, at least for those moments, to something that looks more like personal retribution.
All of that was evident yesterday when family and friends of the 17 people murdered at Florida’s Parkland High School by Nikolas Cruz got their chance to vent at him. It was awful. Several speakers told Cruz that they hope he’s attacked and tortured by his fellow prisoners and that he experiences a painful death. One said she wanted him to “burn in hell.” Others expressed outrage that Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison without parole instead of being executed. Some went so far as to attack the defense attorneys (and even their children) for simply doing their jobs. The judge refused to stop them or to restore any measure of decorum back to her courtroom.
When an accused person is prosecuted in criminal court the plaintiffs are the people, not the individual family members of the victim. It’s the overall society that enforces justice on behalf of the community as a whole. This is not about personal revenge. The victim statements, which are often the one aspect of a trial that gets lengthy coverage precisely because they are so sensational, leave an impression with the public of a raw, eye-for-an-eye sort of Old Testament or Old West justice. It makes everybody look bad and it undermines the purpose of our system.
And, unfortunately, these days they also reflect the bitterness in our society. If there were any graceful, noble or forgiving sentiments expressed yesterday they were not recorded by the press. Nobody was reported as expressing their grief for the loss of their child and then wishing that Cruz would spend his life in prison coming to terms with what he had done and making something of his life.
Look, while I’m against the death penalty, I think it’s just that Cruz spend the rest of his life in prison. Family members of his victims could certainly write him letters and they could vent their raw emotions to the press. But this brutal, painful and undignified ritual should not be a part of our system.