A death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Does Nikolas Cruz Deserve to Die?

With prosecutors planning to seek the death penalty for the Parkland shooter, the debate continues over capital punishment in the U.S.

When Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people in a shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, in February, he committed one of the most horrifying crimes in recent memory.

Now authorities in Florida say that Cruz, 19, deserves to die for his actions. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

“This is certainly the kind of case the death penalty was designed for,” says Michael Satz, the prosecutor in Broward County, where the massacre occurred.

But not everyone agrees that death is the right punishment, including some parents of Cruz’s victims.

“I want him to sit in a cell and rot for the rest of his life,” Andrew Pollack told CNN. Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was killed at Stoneman Douglas.  

In February, Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people in a shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida. It was one of the most horrifying crimes in recent memory.

Now authorities in Florida say that Cruz, 19, deserves to die for his actions. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

“This is certainly the kind of case the death penalty was designed for,” says Michael Satz, the prosecutor in Broward County, where the massacre occurred.

But not everyone agrees that death is the right punishment. That includes some parents of Cruz’s victims.

“I want him to sit in a cell and rot for the rest of his life,” Andrew Pollack told CNN. Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was killed at Stoneman Douglas.

Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP Images

Nikolas Cruz (in orange) at the Broward County Courthouse in March

The tension between these points of view reflects the broader debate over the ethics and usefulness of capital punishment. Should the government put people to death? Does the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” allow it? And is death the right punishment for the worst crimes?

Opposition to the death penalty has been growing in the U.S.: 19 states have abolished capital punishment—including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico in the past decade. New Hampshire’s legislature voted this year to abolish the death penalty, but the governor vetoed the measure. For some states, the high cost of carrying out death sentences has been a factor.

The number of annual executions in the U.S. has declined from 98 in 1999 to 23 in 2017 (see map, below). The number of new death sentences imposed has also dropped dramatically—from 295 in 1998 to 39 last year.  

A majority of Americans—55 percent, according to Gallup—say they support the death penalty for convicted murderers. But that number has dropped considerably since 1994, when 80 percent of Americans supported it. In August, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases.

“We’re seeing that the death penalty has more and more fallen out of favor, and it’s being used in fewer and fewer places,” says Diann Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s inconsistent with American values.”

The tension between these points of view reflects the larger debate over the ethics and usefulness of capital punishment. Should the government put people to death? Does the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” allow it? And is death the right punishment for the worst crimes?

Opposition to the death penalty has been growing in the U.S. Nineteen states have abolished capital punishment. In fact, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico did so in the past decade. New Hampshire’s legislature voted this year to abolish the death penalty, but the governor vetoed the measure. For some states, the high cost of carrying out death sentences has been a factor.

The number of annual executions in the U.S. has declined from 98 in 1999 to 23 in 2017 (see map, p. 17). The number of new death sentences imposed has also dropped dramatically—from 295 in 1998 to 39 last year.

A majority of Americans—55 percent, according to Gallup—say they support the death penalty for convicted murderers. But that number has dropped considerably since 1994. That year, 80 percent of Americans supported it. In August, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases. 

“We’re seeing that the death penalty has more and more fallen out of favor, and it’s being used in fewer and fewer places,” says Diann Rust-Tierney of the National Coaltion to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s inconsistent with American values.”

‘Anything Else Is Not Justice’

But that’s not how death penalty supporters see it. “There are some murder cases for which anything else is just not justice,” says Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group.

Scheidegger also believes that putting a convicted murderer to death is the only sure way to prevent that person from doing harm again. 

“People sentenced to life in prison do sometimes kill again, either in prison or by ordering an execution on the outside, and sometimes they do escape,” he says. “But people who have been executed never kill again.”

The morality of capital punishment has long been debated. Many death penalty supporters interpret the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” to mean that those who commit murder should meet the same fate.

Death penalty supporters say that capital punishment serves as a deterrent, stopping would-be killers, since they fear the possibility of execution. And many think that putting a killer to death can bring some closure and sense of justice to a victim’s family.

Opponents say killing is wrong no matter who is doing it, even if it’s the government, and that it’s too final a punishment in a world where mistakes can happen. Indeed, since 1973, 162 death row inmates have been exonerated, based on DNA and other evidence. 

Opponents also point to statistics that indicate the death penalty discriminates against African-Americans, who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but more than 40 percent of death row inmates.

Internationally, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries, including all of Europe except Belarus, have abolished the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the countries that execute the most people are China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. (In 2017, the U.S. ranked eighth on the list.)

“Virtually no democracy in the world has the death penalty, except the United States,” says Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas who’s written a book on the death penalty. Most other countries that use capital punishment are autocratic regimes or countries that use it to punish high crimes such as treason, he says.

“The U.S. is such a remarkable outlier in its continued use of the death penalty for ordinary crimes,” Steiker says. 

But that’s not how death penalty supporters see it. “There are some murder cases for which anything else is just not justice,” says Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group.

Scheidegger also believes that putting a convicted murderer to death is the only sure way to prevent that person from doing harm again.

“People sentenced to life in prison do sometimes kill again, either in prison or by ordering an execution on the outside, and sometimes they do escape,” he says. “But people who have been executed never kill again.”

The morality of capital punishment has long been debated. Many death penalty supporters base their views on the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” They interpret it to mean that those who commit murder should meet the same fate.

Death penalty supporters say that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. They believe the possibility of execution stops would-be killers from actually committing crimes. And many think that putting a killer to death can bring some closure and sense of justice to a victim’s family.

Opponents say killing is wrong no matter who is doing it, even if it’s the government. They also say that it’s too final a punishment in a world where mistakes can happen. Indeed, since 1973, 162 death row inmates have been found innocent, based on DNA and other evidence. 

Opponents also point to statistics that show the death penalty discriminates against African-Americans. They make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population but more than 40 percent of death row inmates.

More than two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty. In fact, every country in Europe except Belarus has done so. According to Amnesty International, the countries that execute the most people are China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In 2017, the U.S. ranked eighth on the list.

“Virtually no democracy in the world has the death penalty, except the United States,” says Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas who’s written a book on the death penalty. Most other countries that use capital punishment are autocratic regimes or countries that use it to punish high crimes such as treason, he says.

“The U.S. is such a remarkable outlier in its continued use of the death penalty for ordinary crimes,” Steiker says.

Bob Englehart/PoliticalCartoons.com

The Supreme Court

The death penalty in the U.S. dates to colonial times, when European settlers brought capital punishment to the New World. For centuries, hanging was the most common method. By the 1950s, most states were using either the gas chamber or electrocution.

In 1972, the Supreme Court seemed to be on the verge of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional, because it said the standards for applying it were arbitrary and inconsistent. Instead, the Court imposed a moratorium on executions until states could ensure that it was being reserved for the worst offenders. The death penalty was reintroduced in 1976.

Since then, more than 1,480 people have been put to death, most by lethal injection. Looking for a method of execution that would be more humane and less gruesome than the electric chair or hanging, states turned to lethal injection in the 1980s. But in the past few years, it’s become increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs required for this method of execution (see “A New Way to Kill?” below). There have also been a number of botched executions that took hours to carry out and seemed to involve extreme suffering.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings restricting use of the death penalty (see “Key Rulings,” below). In 2002, the Court barred the execution of the mentally disabled. Three years later, the Court ruled that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.

The death penalty in the U.S. dates to colonial times. During that period, European settlers brought capital punishment to the New World. For centuries, hanging was the most common method. By the 1950s, most states were using either the gas chamber or electrocution.

In 1972, the Supreme Court seemed close to declaring capital punishment unconstitutional. At the time, the Court said the standards for applying it were arbitrary and inconsistent. Instead, it put a freeze on executions until states could ensure they would only use the punishment for the worst offenders. The death penalty was reintroduced in 1976.

Since then, more than 1,480 people have been put to death, most by lethal injection. States turned to lethal injection in the 1980s. States were looking for a more humane and less gruesome method of execution than the electric chair or hanging. But in the past few years, it’s become more and more difficult to get the drugs required for lethal injections (see “A New Way to Kill?” p. 15). There have also been a number of botched executions that took hours to carry out. These executions also seemed to involve extreme suffering. 

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings limiting the use of the death penalty (see “Key Rulings,” below). In 2002, the Court outlawed the execution of the mentally disabled. Three years later, the Court ruled that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.

The Court’s most recent ruling on capital punishment involves how it has been carried out in Florida. In 2016, the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s system for imposing death sentences. The state allowed juries to recommend the death penalty by a simple majority vote. That left the final decision up to a judge. In Hurst v. Florida, the Court said that process was unconstitutional. 

Since 1976, more than 1,480 people have been executed.

The Court’s most recent ruling on capital punishment involves how it has been carried out in Florida. In 2016, the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s system for imposing death sentences, in which juries could recommend the death penalty by a simple majority vote, leaving the final decision up to a judge. In Hurst v. Florida, the Court said that process was unconstitutional.

In response, Florida passed a law last year requiring a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence. Experts say this will result in fewer death sentences being handed down in a state that previously had been one of the top users of capital punishment in the country.  

And it might make it harder to impose a death sentence on Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter. The trial has not yet been scheduled, but Cruz’s lawyers have offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. The Parkland student activists have mixed feelings about whether Cruz should face execution. Emma Gonzalez has called it a good thing, while Cameron Kasky and David Hogg have said they prefer to see him spend his life in prison.

“Let him rot forever,” Kasky told CBS.

In response, Florida passed a law last year requiring a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence. Experts say this will result in fewer death sentences being handed down. It’ll be a huge shift for a state that previously had been one of the top users of capital punishment in the country.

And it might make it harder to impose a death sentence on Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter. The trial has not yet been scheduled, but Cruz’s lawyers have offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. The Parkland student activists have mixed feelings about whether Cruz should face execution. Emma Gonzalez has called it a good thing. Cameron Kasky and David Hogg have said they prefer to see him spend his life in prison. 

“Let him rot forever,” Kasky told CBS.

Jim McMahon

‘Cruel and Unusual’?

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear two new challenges to the death penalty. One is from a death row inmate in Missouri who says his rare medical condition will cause him extreme pain if he’s killed by lethal injection. The other case will consider whether it’s constitutional for Alabama to execute an inmate who has dementia and can no longer remember his crime. Neither of these cases tackles the big-picture question of whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York, predicts that if the current trend toward fewer death sentences in fewer places continues, a Supreme Court vote on the death penalty’s constitutionality may become inevitable.

“Sooner or later, we’ll likely see its abolition, not because the Supreme Court says it’s cruel,” says Freedman, “but because [the justices say] it’s become so unusual.”

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear two new challenges to the death penalty. One is from a death row inmate in Missouri who says his rare medical condition will cause him extreme pain if he’s killed by lethal injection. The other case will consider whether it’s constitutional for Alabama to execute an inmate who has dementia and can no longer remember his crime. Neither of these cases tackles the big-picture question of whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York, predicts that if the current trend toward fewer death sentences in fewer places continues, a Supreme Court vote on the death penalty’s constitutionality may become inevitable.

“Sooner or later, we’ll likely see its abolition, not because the Supreme Court says it’s cruel,” says Freedman, “but because [the justices say] it’s become so unusual.”

With reporting by Denise Grady and Jan Hoffman of The New York Times.

With reporting by Denise Grady and Jan Hoffman of The New York Times.

A New Way to Kill?

Problems with lethal injection spur some states to explore other execution methods

Getting the drugs for lethal injection has been increasingly difficult.

Felipe Caparros cruz/Alamy Stock Photo

Last February, officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama spent two-and-a-half hours trying to get a needle into a vein of a convicted killer in order to carry out his execution by lethal injection before finally giving up.  

Episodes like this have become more frequent in recent years, and they highlight the problems with lethal injection, the most common method of execution in the U.S.

There are several contributing factors, death penalty experts say. Because most doctors see participation in executions as a violation of their oath to “do no harm,” many lethal injections are carried out by people with little or no medical training.   

And in the past few years, it’s become increasingly difficult for states to get the drugs needed for lethal injection. That’s because the drug manufacturers refuse to sell them if they’re being used for executions. This has forced prison systems to try untested drug combinations and to get the drugs from compounding pharmacies—loosely regulated labs that mix drugs to order.

As a work-around, several states are now considering a totally new method of execution: having inmates inhale nitrogen gas. Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen for executions.

There’s no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones.

“It’s completely experimental,” says Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, “so we don’t even know what the pitfalls are.”

THE SUPREME COURT: Key Death Penalty Rulings

 1972: Furman v. Georgia 

Imposes a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty, which the Court says is being applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner.

 1976: Gregg v. Georgia 

Reinstates the death penalty after states address the Court’s concerns.

 2002: Atkins v. Virginia

Bars the execution of the mentally disabled.  

Missouri Department of Corrections/AP Images

 2005: Roper v. Simmons

Bars the execution of juvenile offenders.

 2008: Baze v. Rees 

Rules that execution by lethal injection is not cruel and unusual punishment.

 2008: Kennedy v. Louisiana

Restricts the death penalty to crimes in which the victim is killed or cases of treason.

 2016: Hurst v. Florida

Invalidates Florida’s system for imposing death sentences. The ruling makes it harder to impose a death sentence and could affect the fate of Nikolas Cruz.

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