Who ‘spared’ the mass killer? Investigating word choice in the media

by Craig Evans

When news outlets reported on the sentencing of James Holmes at the weekend, I was struck by the incongruity between the events described and the repeated use of the word ‘spared’. In July, Holmes was found guilty of the murders of 12 people in a cinema in 2012. Prosecutors in the case sought the death penalty, but the jury needed to be unanimous in their decision to pass this sentence. At least one juror opposed the death penalty, and Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The consensus in the media was that James Holmes had been ‘spared’. Here are some quotes from publications across the political spectrum:

James Holmes has been spared the death penalty (The Independent, 08 August 2015)

James Holmes spared death penalty for US cinema killings (BBC News website, 08 August 2015)

Frustration as ‘monster’ James Holmes is spared the death penalty (Mail Online, 08 August 2015)

Decision to spare schizophrenic mass killer sparks criticism (The Times, 08 August 2015)

James Holmes was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole but was spared the death penalty (The Guardian, 08 August 2015)

In all but one of the examples, the transitive verb ‘to spare’ is used passively; in the one exception, the action of sparing is attributed to an abstract process – ‘decision to spare’ (The Times). The effect in all cases is that the agent doing the sparing is not clear.

So, who ‘spared’ James Holmes? Was it a human individual or group of people actively engaged with the decision to ‘spare’? Was his being ‘spared’ the result of an abstract process beyond the direction of human agency? Or could it be that the word ‘spared’ has an implicit religious sense whereby a divine force was doing the ‘sparing’?

The only candidate for a human agent is the juror (as has been reported in the media) who refused to agree to the death penalty. Was their act of refusal tantamount to a decision to ‘spare’?

The OED defines the word ‘spare’, in the sense that it is being used here, as follows:

To leave (a person) unhurt, unharmed, or uninjured; to refrain from inflicting injury or punishment upon; to allow to escape, go free, or live.

It may well be that the juror opposed the death penalty on moral grounds. Perhaps they believed that nobody has the right to decide whether or not someone else should live or die. If this were the case, to suggest the juror ‘spared’ James Holmes would be to ascribe them the kind of agency that they object to people being able to have.

An alternative interpretation is that Holmes was ‘spared’ by an abstract agent such as the judicial process or an instance of random luck. Neither of these consist of a single consciousness that would permit there to be deliberate agency. So, who is doing the ‘sparing’? Could it be generation upon generation of the American people who have continued to vote in governments that support the use of a jury system in criminal trial cases?

Be it the democratic will of the public or the autocratic whim of a powerful individual, the agent who ‘spares’ has long been one in a position of great authority:

Saladin had issued particular orders that he should be spared and protected. [1825, Scott Talisman iii, in Tales Crusaders III. 88, from OED]

It is an agency that has often been attributed to powerful non-human sources…

An earthquake may be bid to spare The man that’s strangled by a hair. [1780, W. Cowper Fable 34, from OED]

Whom ev’n the salvage Beasts had spar’d, they kill’d. [1697, Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics iv, in tr. Virgil Wks. 145, from OED]

… including the most powerful non-human source of them all, as illustrated by the earliest recorded use of this word from the OED:

God..spearað dearfan & weðlan. [c825 Vesp. Psalter lxxi. 13]  

The original authority to ‘spare’ belonged to the notion of an omnipotent force making decisions. Today, when the British media report on James Holmes having been ‘spared’, in the absence of any unequivocal agent, could the same notion of ‘God’ be what is meant when they use this word?

It seems unlikely that all the media outlets represented by the examples above would consciously make the same decision to use ‘spared’ in this sense. However, why don’t any of them use the clear alternatives that are available instead? For example:

‘James Holmes has not been sentenced to death’

‘James Holmes not to be executed’

It is not a question of brevity or limited character space – ‘not to be executed’ is shorter than ‘spared the death penalty’. In the former, it is clear what won’t be happening and who won’t be doing it (i.e. state officials will not be putting to death a convicted criminal), where the agent for James Holmes being ‘spared’ is very ambiguous.

So why do they use the word ‘spared’?

When I encountered its use in relation to the James Holmes story, I got the impression that something good had happened. This may be because I am opposed to capital punishment, but surely then the words ‘not to be executed’ would have had the same effect? Perhaps the difference is the idea that an individual or group took the positive action of ‘sparing’ rather than the negative action of sentencing someone to die. This would seem to be a step in the right direction for the American judicial system, but actually that is not the case. After all, it was the conscience of a single member of the jury and the random chance that they were selected to be on the jury that resulted in James Holmes not being executed. On another day with another jury he could have easily been given the death penalty.

The fact is, I don’t know why the British media would uniformly use the word ‘spared’. It is ambiguous and it is not the only option available. There is arguably the implicit religious or cosmic sense of the word, where God or fate may be thought to be doing the ‘sparing’ – could this be their meaning? Perhaps not consciously, but at some level it may represent a concession to the limitations of human agency.

Ultimately, it surprises me that the media in a country that doesn’t have capital punishment, particularly those more liberal parts of the media whose editors and writers have actively opposed the death penalty, should choose to represent the James Holmes sentencing as the triumph of an act of ‘sparing’ life, when in fact, given the widespread criticism of the sentence in America, it might more accurately be described as the failure of an act of killing.

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