If the Death Penalty Doesn’t Apply to Mass Shooters, Then Who?

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If the Parkland shooter didn’t receive the death penalty, who should? 

On October 13, 2022, after a three-month-long trial that agonized the families of the 17 people he murdered, the Parkland school shooter received a sentence of life in prison. The death penalty was also a possible outcome, but three of the jurors voted against it. Without unanimity on the jury on the question of capital punishment, the shooter automatically got life without parole.  

Fred Guttenberg, father of 14-year-old murder victim Jaime Guttenberg, wrote on his Twitter account after the verdict, “I have been asked if I have closure. I do not.” There is nothing, this grieving father wrote, that can ever bring closure to the fact that the only way he can visit his daughter is “at the cemetery.” Guttenberg has become an eloquent voice of moral clarity in the fight for justice for the victims of gun violence, and for sensible gun control laws to protect all of us. 

Depravity and a gun 

The crime for which the now-24-year-old perpetrator was convicted was especially cruel and vicious. Nineteen years old on Valentine’s Day in 2018, he entered the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, near the close of the school day. He was armed with a legally purchased AK-15 rifle variant, additional ammunition, and smoke grenades. He pulled a fire alarm so students and teachers would pour out into the hallways. In the space of only a few minutes, he brutally shot 14 students and three adult instructors to death. His bullets injured 17 other people. 

In October 2021, the shooter entered a guilty plea to 17 counts of murder, along with 17 counts of attempted murder. The penalty phase of the trial began in summer 2022.  

Had the shooter been tried before 2016, he might have gotten the death penalty. That was the year Florida law stopped allowing judges to pronounce a death sentence, provided a majority of the jury concurred. For the past six years, a jury divided on whether a convicted murderer deserves to die automatically results in a sentence of life in prison without parole.  

Changed law brings agony 

After the Parkland decision, many of the victims’ family members publicly stated their disapproval of the jury’s failure to produce a unanimous death sentence, saying they felt their continuing pain and horror went unheard, despite their eloquent victim impact statements.  

Some Florida prosecutors are taking this side as well, saying they’d like to see the law revert to its pre-2016 status. If that were to happen, though, it would put Florida among only a handful of states to allow non-unanimous death sentences.  

Geography has a lot to do with sentencing 

There were a total of 1,363 victims killed in the 240 mass shootings of all types that took place in the United States from 2009 to 2021. In almost all of these incidents, the perpetrator was an adult male acting on his own. Across these 240 incidents, only 145 shooters were taken into custody, with the remainder dying by suicide, killed by police, or recorded as outcome unknown.  

The type of justice these perpetrators received depends in large part on where they committed their crimes.  

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, published a study in 2021 that looked at exactly that issue. There are 23 states that have abolished the death penalty. But in the remaining 27, the researchers found that there are also wide disparities even from county to county.  

Tellingly, a person convicted of murder in a county where lynchings were common in the Jim Crow era is more likely to receive a death sentence today. The death penalty is also more likely where the victim was white. In addition, more populous counties are more likely to produce more death penalty verdicts just because of sheer numerical probability. And those with larger tax bases to support the cost of capital trials can more likely afford to mete out the death penalty.  

Common practice also enters into it. Although California has a death penalty on the books, Governor Gavin Newsom has called a moratorium on its enforcement. When a local prosecutor makes capital charges in California, the result of conviction is then typically life imprisonment. Even in Georgia, which we might assume to be quick to execute, has carried out the death sentence only once since 2015.  

In many cases, the most important deciding factors turn out to be the prosecutor and the precedent. Statistically speaking, every successful prosecutorial request for the death penalty makes it easier for prosecutors to file the next one. 

“What do we have the death penalty for?” 

The fact that capital punishment is applied so unevenly in this country makes it hard for many people to support the death penalty. But if it doesn’t apply in such a clear-cut case as that of the Parkland shooter, when does it apply? By all accounts, he remains unremorseful, and as a Florida Sun-Sentinel headline put it, filled with thoughts of “blood, murder, revenge.” 

After the verdict, Fred Guttenberg and other Parkland parents who spoke with the media expressed their justified disgust and anger.  

“What do we have the death penalty for?” asked one of the parents. Being spared a death sentence was “exactly what he wanted,” another wrote on social media, referring to the shooter.  

While they’ve shown more bravery and resilience than most of us will, we hope, ever have to muster, these families’ lives will never not be broken. At some point, we do have to ask ourselves as a country exactly what we have the death penalty for. 

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