Earlier this month, America learned that James Holmes would escape the death penalty after a lone juror reportedly thought capital punishment was too harsh of a sentence for killing 12 people (and wounding 70 more) inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012. Avoiding the death penalty was a big break for the brazen murderer, and although his sentence was not announced until last week, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. made it clear early on that Holmes would never walk free.
"He has to be punished for every crime," Samour said in open court. "If that adds up to 12 life sentences, so be it. It is the court's intention that the defendant never set foot in free society again. If there was ever a case that warranted a maximum sentence, this is the case. The defendant does not deserve any sympathy. Sheriff, get the defendant out of my courtroom, please."
Twelve life sentences and an additional 3,318 years of imprisonment is the actual sentence Holmes was given last Wednesday. His lawyers will undoubtedly file a host of appeals, and Holmes will be placed inside a maximum-security faculty where he can still experience some semblance of humanity. Life in prison is a far different animal than life on death row—Holmes will eventually be able to move around, associate with people, and enjoy all that prison has to offer. That may not sound like much to those of you in the outside world, but when you were looking at a possible execution, it is a legitimate reprieve.
"Good food, clean air up in the mountains, lots of drugs, some homemade brew and maybe even a shot of pussy," says James Diederich, a federal prisoner due to get released next year. "And he'll get a ton of fan mail by some hot bitches who will send him money."
Currently at FCI Terre Haute, Diederich has previously done time in the Colorado state prison system. He says that Holmes will probably experience some problems with gang members at first, but will eventually be fine and serve a relatively peaceful bid. As far as state prison systems go, Colorado's is a decent one, according to Diedrich.
"There's plenty of life inside of prison," he tells me. "And it sure beats the hell out of death."
Diederich is not wrong. Although I have not been behind bars in Colorado, I have served state time in both California and Arkansas, and I'm currently sitting in federal prison serving my 18th straight year for a sentence that offers no hope of freedom.
Like James Holmes, I am doing life without the possibility of release. Unlike Holmes, I killed no one. My crime was dealing drugs—4.4 kilos of meth to be exact—and because I had two prior drugs convictions, and refused to cooperate with the government, I ended up receiving a mandatory life sentence. (As of November 2013, there were more than 3,000 people serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes.)
As I watch people like James Holmes, the Green River Killer, and the BTK serial killer escape the death penalty and receive effectively the same fate as my own, it completely boggles my mind. I find it hard to understand how a person convicted for drug crimes could share the same sentence as a stone-cold murderer.
I've been in prison a total of 21 years, and in that time I've known a lot of murderers and rapists. Many of them appear to take great pleasure in sharing every detail of their crimes, reveling in their own audacity. It's like war stories to dudes in prison. Guys laugh over their victims' last words, or talk about cutting up body parts or disposing them or how the corpse would defecate or make farting noises. When I was housed at FCI Butner in North Carolina, right next to a sex-offender unit, the child molesters and rapists would sit around trading images of their victims like baseball cards, and I even heard the rapists boast that they have vivid memories of their victims etched in their minds that no prison sentence could take away from them.
For those of us who are trapped in here with people like that, it's frustrating—maddening—that selling drugs sometimes carries the same penalty as killing or raping someone. One inmate named Kenneth Choice says he can't believe that Connecticut just shut down its death row and yet so many federal drug offenders remain behind bars with life sentences.
"Does this make any sense?" asks Choice, a first-time drug offender serving life without the possibility of parole. "How can we have so many people out there wanting to save the lives of all of these horrific killers, but we still in here for drugs?"
"I hope the Holmes case brings to life the absurdity of it all," said Dennis, another federal prisoner serving a life sentence for drugs. "He hurt and killed all of those people and what did we do? We gave some people what they wanted, not much different than a bartender."
There are many problems with our criminal justice system, and this is just one of them. I don't advocate death for anyone, but when did murdering 12 people in cold blood and selling drugs become equal offenses?
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