In an odd moment of judicial bravado today, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina proclaimed, "I just signed your death warrant" to Larry Nassar while sentencing him to as many as 175 years in prison. Twitter and IRL lawyer Gabriel Malor suggested some reasons as to why this bit of showboating was improper, and his thoughts are well worth reading. Mostly, though, I was left wondering: "Well, why not literally sign a death warrant for Nassar?"
We are told that prison is intended to be rehabilitative rather than retributive. But, as Judge Aquilina intimated, there will be no rehabilitation for Nassar: He will die behind bars. If instead this sentence is retributive—as Judge Aquilina's showy performance today suggests it certainly (and, I would argue, justly) is—then why not exact the full measure of retribution allowed? If the goal is simply to remove him from the population so as to protect others, why not implement a permanent, irreversible protection?
Some suggest that Nassar should be forced to live with his crimes for years, decades—that he'll suffer while he sits in his cell, tormented by his sins. Here's Nassar on what he has done and how he has been sentenced: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The media is sensationalizing this. The [attorney general’s office] forced me to [plea guilty]. I was so manipulated by the AG, and now Aquilina, and all I wanted was to minimize stress to everyone. The FBI investigated [my Olympic treatments] in 2015 because nothing was wrong. Now they’re seeking the media attention and financial reward." Does that sound like the sort of man who will suffer in prison? Or does it sound like a man who will cast himself as a victim, who will talk himself into self-pity?
Another line of argument is that it would be more expensive to sentence Nassar to death than to warehouse him for life. But this is only a case against endless appeals, not a case against the death penalty per se. Letting capital criminals linger for decades as their dockets wend through the courts and then using that very lingering to suggest that the death penalty should be done away with is an absurdity out of Catch-22.
Others have suggested that he'll suffer in prison because he'll—wink wink, nudge nudge—get what's coming to him. Because of the rapes, you see. The years and years of prison rapes. And look: if we want to sentence a guy to 175 years of prison rape, so be it. But don't sit there and talk to me about how prison is intended for rehabilitation or that the death penalty somehow violates our strictures on cruel and unusual punishment while you have a laugh about forcibly buggering convicts as a backdoor means of justice.
Some say it would be immoral because it is immoral for the state to take anyone's life; this is, to my mind, more or less irrelevant. The government's power derives entirely upon its authority to deprive you of life for violating our agreed-upon set of laws. Whether that comes in the form of a SWAT team's rifle or a judge's pen strikes me as a distinction without a difference.
A variation on this is that it is wrong for the state to take a life because an innocent could die. And yet, there is no doubt as to Nassar's guilt. Surely we can draw the line between the maybe-guilty and the definitely-guilty: But if we are worried about this sort of line, shouldn't they go free in the first place? What else is reasonable doubt?
I guess it's neither here nor there; Nassar'll do his time and die behind bars, we'll move on with our lives. And I'm not suggesting he should be executed, really. But I do sometimes wonder what we want from the justice system, as a society. Or if the vast majority of us have even really given it serious thought.