Thinking through the James Holmes verdict Biblically

Death Penalty | Was the jury’s decision concerning the Colorado movie theater massacre a just...
by Marvin Olasky
Posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, at 11:30 am

The decision in Colorado last Friday not to execute James Holmes for murdering 12 persons left Holmes’ mom crying in relief but the families of victims crying out for justice. Question: Is it unBiblical to give Holmes only life imprisonment without parole for his midnight movie theater massacre in 2012?

Interviews after the trial showed nine jurors wanted him executed, one did not, and two wavered (a unanimous decision is required to sentence someone to death in Colorado). Apparently, a juror thought Holmes’ mental illness left him legally and morally culpable enough to be found guilty but not executed. Let’s think this through Biblically and not just give a knee-jerk reaction.

The Bible throughout puts a high value on innocent human life, both born and unborn. Particular verses are relevant to capital punishment. One is from Chapter 9 of Genesis: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’” Chapter 21 of Exodus offers the famous formulation, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” which later Scripture passages repeat several times.

The Bible also puts a high value on maybe-guilty human life. The Biblical standard regarding the death penalty is much stricter than most American ones. The Bible five times—Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1—stipulates that a capital punishment verdict should not be based on circumstantial evidence: Testimony from two or three eyewitnesses is essential. Most death penalty cases don’t have that many witnesses, but the movie theater murders in Colorado did.

Furthermore, Chapter 19 of Deuteronomy stipulates that witnesses had to be so sure of an accused murderer’s guilt that they would risk dying themselves. If a witness “has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. … And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” This verse also would not get in the way of executing Holmes. His defense lawyers acknowledged that he had done it.

The harder question is whether God always demands the death penalty for murderers. In America, could that “reckoning” in Genesis be a lifetime in prison? “Put to death” is a common refrain from Exodus through Deuteronomy when God is laying out civil law for ancient Israel, so why in universally applicable Genesis is only “reckoning” required?

Is the subsequent verse in Genesis, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” prescriptive or descriptive? Earlier in Genesis, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” Was the later chapter giving a command, or noting that when one person sheds blood, others will shed his?

(The “shall” suggests a command, but translators [English Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version] set off that phrase as a descriptive poetic quotation, similar to the way they set off a saying the apostle Paul quoted in Chapter 17 of Acts.)

Here’s another hard question: Are the later “eye for an eye” prescriptions literal requirements or commands to take no more than an eye for an eye? Lamech was looking for vengeance out of proportion to the offense: “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Since man’s vengeance and counter-vengeance almost always lead to damage far greater than what started the battle, was God stressing that He allows limited retaliation but nothing greater?

My overall conclusion when I studied these questions two years ago (see the cover story “Dead seriousness” and column “Better off dead?”) was that those who want to abolish capital punishment are wrong, but those who demand it in all cases when the jury finds a person guilty of murder are wrong as well. (I thus left no one happy.) Another conclusion I drew after interviewing killers serving life sentences is that in some cases their misery could represent a “reckoning.”

So, I’m glad that states like Colorado have two stages of jury deliberation in a murder case: One to determine guilt or innocence, and a second to determine whether a guilty person should be put to death.

In this case Holmes clearly did it, not only by American standards of evidence but by Biblical standards as well. With one victim, life imprisonment without parole might be a sufficient reckoning, but 12?

My conclusion here: Insanity defenses are Biblically problematic. Death is objective, and if one person deliberately kills another, subjectivity should not rule. Dead is dead. And in this case the jury had already rejected Holmes’ insanity defense. The jury had found Holmes capable of knowing right from wrong at the time he killed the 12. Jurors had agreed that the heinousness of the crimes outweighed any possible mental illness.

So, the juror who opposed applying the death penalty apparently let subjective views trump Biblical objectivity—but that’s happening across the nation again and again. This outcome in Colorado is one more sign that the United States is probably on the way to getting rid of capital punishment for everyone except unborn babies.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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