Prosecutors have rebuffed an offer by James E. Holmes, the accused killer of 12 people in a movie theater rampage in Aurora, Colo., last year, to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.

In deciding instead to seek the death penalty, the district attorney is ignoring significant indications that Holmes was deranged when he allegedly committed his crimes. Equally troubling, the district attorney said he reached his decision after speaking to families of victims.

We oppose capital punishment in all circumstances. But even those who support the death penalty should want to confine it to cases in which the defendant is clearly responsible for his actions and not in the grip of a serious mental illness. Holmes doesn’t meet that standard. Among other things, the troubled graduate student told a University of Colorado psychiatrist a month before the shootings that he was having homicidal thoughts that the psychiatrist apparently feared he couldn’t control.

Holmes’ attorneys can still offer an insanity defense, which is more robust in Colorado than in other states. For example, the prosecution would have to prove the defendant was sane and knew right from wrong, rather than the defendant having to prove he suffered from mental illness. The defendant can also argue that his disease created an “irresistible impulse” that led him to commit a crime. But jurors are often unreceptive to insanity pleas.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler should have exercised prosecutorial discretion by accepting the offer of life in prison. That he declined to do so is doubly disturbing because, in explaining his decision, he noted that he had personally spoken to 60 family members of people killed in the shooting and that his office had reached out to hundreds of survivors and family members. Although Brauchler didn’t say that he acted at their behest, the notion that victims or their families should drive decisions about the death penalty is a dangerous one.

A friend of one of the people who died said of Holmes, “I want him dead. I just want to be there in the room when he dies.” Understandable as such sentiments are, they shouldn’t have any influence over a decision on the death penalty. The whole point of the legal system is to prevent private vengeance and entrust decisions about punishment to judges, juries and prosecutors whose highest duty is to the law, not to crime victims or their families. The prosecutors in this case made the wrong decision.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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