On Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015 a judge sentenced James Holmes to 12 life sentences in prison for killing 12 people and wounding 70 other in the Aurora movie theater massacre three years ago. The judge added 3,318 years for non-lethal activity such as attempted murder. At the age of 71, disgraced financier Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running a massive Ponzi scheme. The “BTK” serial killer, Dennis Rader, was given 10 consecutive life sentences for 10 murders he committed around Wichita, Kansas. Wouldn’t one life sentence have been enough?
Judges hand down impossibly long prison sentences for both practical and symbolic purposes. Back-to-back life sentences are two or more consecutive life sentences given to a felon to prevent the felon from ever getting released from prison. This is a common punishment for a double murder in the United States because the defendant may be awarded parole after 25 years when he or she is eligible, and then must serve an additional 25 years in prison to be eligible for parole again. It also serves as a type of insurance that the defendant will have to serve the maximum length of at least one life sentence if, for some reason, one of the murder convictions is overturned on appeal. Other countries either allow multiple concurrent life sentences which can be served at the same time such as in Canada, or allow multiple consecutive life sentences with a single minimum term such as in Australia, thus allowing earlier release of the prisoner.
In most cases, the judge delivers a sentence for each crime of which the defendant has been found guilty. For instance, Rader pleaded guilty to 10 separate murders. The judge then decides whether the sentences will be served concurrently or consecutively. Under Kansas law, the standard life sentence is “15 to life,” meaning the offender gets his first parole hearing after 15 years. No matter if he faced 10 or even 100 concurrent sentences, that hearing would still come after 15 years.
In James Holmes’ case, he received a life sentence for each one of his victims. In cases with multiple victims, each family might find solace in knowing the criminal received a specific punishment for each crime. Prosecutor might want multiple sentences on the books in case some were overturned on appeal. Also, the court could use back-to-back sentences to emphasize the crime’s severity to the governor or the board of pardons.
Interestingly, a life sentence does not mean as long as a person lives. In some states, a life sentence means life, without the possibility of parole. In other states, people with life sentences are eligible for parole. A life sentence in the United States is usually 40 years. The world’s longest prison sentence in history is that of Chamoy Thipyaso who was sentenced in Thailand in 1989 to 141,078 years for corporate fraud. She defrauded more than 16,000 Thais in a pyramid scheme worth $204 million at the time. See the list of other long sentences.