Major Nidal Hasan made no argument that he wasn't the person who opened fire killing 13 people and wounding 32 others inside the Medical Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas. He represented himself and raised no claim that might save his life.
This was the worst shooting on a military base in U.S. history. Some might argue that given the facts, a death sentence was a forgone conclusion ---but they likely would have been wrong: certainly in a civilian context and perhaps even in a military setting as well.
The reality is that the death penalty has become an increasingly isolated practice. After carefully studying the practice, six states in the last six years have repealed their death penalty statutes.
Jurors are returning death sentences in fewer cases and in cases that years ago seemingly would have been slam dunks. Consequently prosecutors are more selective in the cases in which the punishment is sought.
From the perspective of someone who opposes all executions, this is a good thing. However, we all should be troubled by a system of justice that is increasingly arbitrary and unpredictable in meeting out the most fearsome of punishments.
The military on this point is no exception. It is true that military prosecutors seek the death penalty at higher rates than civilian prosecutors. But just as is the case in civilian courts, the rate at which death sentences are sought has declined. Similarly the actual rates of death sentencing is higher than in civilian courts but even still we are talking about only a handful of cases that result in death sentences.
The last military execution took place in 1961 when U.S. Army Private John A. Bennett was hanged.
We have always had a delicate and uncomfortable relationship with the death penalty as part of our judicial system. Despite its longevity, it doesn't quite fit. We do the best we can as human beings to craft systems and institutions that are unbiased and mete out justice accurately and fairly. But we fall short.
I have not seen a system built yet, that can equip the most principled and dedicated of us as prosecutors, judges, jurors, or military tribunals with the god-like ability to see into the soul of another human being and without fail sort out the irredeemable, from the weak, the wicked or the wrong.
We give it our best approximation. We rely on the adversarial process. We consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances. But deep down inside, even those who support this practice admit that it's not easy to get it right.
There are things that we can get right. We can focus our energies and attention on determining why someone we would not suspect of harming others would wreak such havoc on a community. What signs might we watch for? What interventions might we apply that could prevent or limit the harm from occurring in the first place? What additional systems might we put in place to help people and communities heal? Questions we don't seem to get around to asking, let alone finding the time, energy and resources to answer when our focus is on death sentences and executions.
It might seem easier to simply label some conduct as monstrous and designate its perpetrator to be dispatched from this life. But deep down we know that the label is simplistic. And the solution is inadequate to prevent another tragedy from occurring. We know too that we are paying too little attention to the people who have lost loved ones to murder and their need for our tangible support towards healing.
That is why, even in the face of tragedies that test our resolve to move forward to find better ways of identifying and addressing the root causes of violence and serving the needs of people who are harmed by violence, the use of the death penalty must end.