Not Guilty

April 16, 2015 at 6:00 pm


150414-james-holmes_0d12e5ab87c4a2ad00b1e230b97e8e3dIn the summer of July, 2012 I packed into a minivan with two friends who were willing to endure over six hours of cinematic madness with me. It was the opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the finale to Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful trilogy centering on the iconic superhero Batman. Earlier that week my fellow fans and I stumbled across an all-night ticket that would have us glued to our seats through repeats of the first two films before finally unveiling the premier at midnight. As we dutifully turned off our cell phones each of became blissfully unaware that at that very moment James Holmes was busy preparing to enter a theatre showing the same film in order to commit a horrific act of violence in Aurora, Colorado.

By the time the closing credits rolled across the screen and we made our way back through the parking lot our cell phones were exploding with the news of Holmes’s maniacal shooting spree that left 12 people dead and 70 injured inside the theatre that night. This week, nearly three years after that infamous evening, jurors have been selected for his trial and will be asked to consider the penalty for a man who has already plead “not guilty” for reasons of “insanity.”

“Not guilty.”

The case against Holmes begins in conjunction with the close of the trial against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the young man convicted of planting bombs with his brother at the finish line of the Boston marathon two years ago. In attempts to avoid the death penalty, defense attorneys for Tsarnaev endeavored to place blame for the crime onto the shoulders of Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan. Tsarnaev, they argued, was just a victim of his brother’s coercion. Each of these cases should cause us to ponder anew what is meant by the word “guilt.” Is it the act itself that makes one guilty? Is it our motives, our intentions, our remorse (or lack thereof) or our mental capacity to truly understand our actions? Is it right to view guilt as a word synonymous with responsibility?

This is ultimately what one means today when they declare themselves to be “not guilty.” They are not denying human actions or involvement. They are not refuting claims that they pulled the trigger, planted the bomb, stole, cheated, or committed perjury; they are declaring, “I cannot be held responsible for my actions.” I did something wrong, but I should not be made to suffer the consequences of those actions because my brother, my brain, my medication, or my childhood made me do it.

Nita A. Farhany is a professor at Duke University and a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Her research has centered on the intersection between neuroscience and law where she has discovered that “at least 5 percent of all murder cases that go to trial have neuroscience evidence that’s introduced. Ten years ago, that was less than .01 percent of cases.” (emphasis mine)

Farhany has been honest about her struggles with this growing trend in the justice system, positing questions publicly in Faith and Leadership and Radiolab. Ultimately, the study of culpability leads to difficult conversations related to trauma, brain chemistry and the connection between will and action. Indeed, if our actions can be explained by our genetic code, then what other factors might be legitimately cited as potential contributors that eventually let us “off the hook.” If someone has been abused, do we not expect him or her to become abusers themselves? Children of alcoholics are predisposed to alcoholism. Soldiers with PTSD sometimes commit murder after returning home. My father left when I was young…what crimes might I commit?

What I am suggesting is that our culture of blame shifting is a slippery slope that appears to have no end in site. Who among us cannot point to painful experiences, bad genes, or the wrong mix of neurological chemicals to explain away our destructive behavior? They may provide the rational to foster greater compassion, but they most certainly must not become the means to acquit any of us of personal responsibility and guilt. Indeed as Farhany suggests,

“The kind of freedom that I think we have, the kind of agency that we have, is agency over our actions. Some people have a harder time controlling their actions. Some people have an easier time controlling their actions…[but] telling people that you’re going to hold them responsible and treating people as if they’re responsible agents seems to make them behave more like responsible agents. From a pure utilitarian perspective, if one of our goals is to be able to live in a society where we can know that we’re each going to abide by a set of rules that enable us to coexist peacefully, then treating people as if they’re responsible agents is going to be more likely to yield that result.

Perhaps most importantly, when we think through these issues theologically I am convinced that we need to carefully guard ourselves as a society from separating evil from human agency. Guilt often plays an essential role in our spiritual lives, starting a conversation between our minds and hearts that relays the necessary truth that what we did was terribly wrong and needs to be made right.

For followers of Christ, our great hope is that our eternal guilt and ultimate condemnation are removed by the work of Jesus, but this does not suggest we are able to cheat on our spouse and declare “not guilty.”  The demands of obedience increase with our commitment to Christ, not decrease.   Furthermore, guilt, properly understood and applied, can become the very source of freedom for the perpetrators of evil in that they are only able to find true freedom and forgiveness when confessions are made. In this way, removing responsibility is often the least loving act we can offer. By offering excuses for misdeeds we sometimes leave an offender with a tormented mind that has been denied the opportunity to  be cleansed by way of admission and acceptance of blame. 

If neuroscience can offer us guidance by way of adjustments in our sentencing, so be it. But let us not continue to allow the mockery of our courts when men who build bombs for the killing of innocent civilians or toss grenades into crowded cinemas are  defended as victims instead of as perpetrators, or are allowed to claim with any sense of integrity that they are simply, “not guilty.”