Does Tsarnev deserve the death penalty?


 — BOSTON — “I don’t favor the death penalty, but this case makes me question my beliefs.” “Give ‘im what he deserves—the electric chair!” “There is no way this guy ought to live.” “Let him get the most gruesome death possible.”

These are a sample of the comments readily heard in Boston and throughout Massachusetts as the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev continues to unfold. Tsarnaev, 21, is on trial for his life for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and faces 30 criminal charges, most of which could earn him the death penalty.

Four days after the bombing, Tsarnaev’s brother died in a gun battle with police. A campus police officer was also killed.

It is understandable why many people would call for the death penalty. The defendant’s guilt, murderous intent, and lethal consequence are not in question. The Tsarnaev brothers purposefully planted bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, where the explosion would kill the largest number of innocent bystanders.

The bombs killed three people and wounded 260 others, including more than a dozen whose limbs were sheared off by the nails and ball bearings of the homemade explosives. The youngest victim was an eight year old boy. His death was not random. Tsarnaev placed his bomb-laden backpack close enough to the child so that he could have touched it.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers have conceded the obvious and admitted that their client committed the crime. So, there is no confusion or uncertainty in these proceedings, as there often is in other murder cases, about whether the wrong man has been brought to trial.

(While admitting Tsarnaev’s guilt, the defense claims their client was under the sway of his elder brother. If even one member of the jury agrees, the death penalty cannot be applied, since the jury must be unanimous when deciding in favor of capital punishment).

No jury will excuse the defendant’s motives. The political logic behind the attack—the United States kills innocent Muslims throughout the world, so innocent Americans deserve to die—is morally repugnant and indefensible.

The political goal behind the attack—to punish the United States for its crimes—was utterly foolish and, as anyone could predict, thoroughly useless. A random bombing, no matter how horrible, was never going to change U.S. policy in the Middle East and, in fact, only served as fodder to justify the reactionary “war on terrorism.”

Those in Massachusetts who call for capital punishment have a friend in the top lawyer in the land. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to pursue a death sentence in this case, saying, “the nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.”

Capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder, a method for the capitalist system to remove society’s discontents in the interests of maintaining “order” and the status quo. Only the heat of emotion—the swirl of sorrow, anger, and frustration—can explain why so many working people accept it.

Yet the rationale given in support of capital punishment is irredeemably flawed. No argument for the death penalty holds up to even the slightest scrutiny.

A majority of people in Massachusetts, a state that abolished capital punishment, agrees with this criticism. Despite the brutal crime at the Boston Marathon that harmed so many innocents, most people in the state do not favor the death penalty. A recent editorial by the Boston Globe has opposed the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case.

In every local and statewide poll since the bombing, a majority has consistently favored life imprisonment without parole for Tsarnaev. One person who was polled spoke for many when she commented that she does not “support taking lives for the sake of taking lives.” A life taken is never a life returned.

The case against the death penalty is thorough and incontestable. Although there is no mistake about Tsarnaev’s guilt, the death penalty has been applied to innocent people. If it is maintained, innocent defendants will continue to suffer.

This is the view of the Boston Bar Association, whose membership numbers some 12,000 lawyers. The Association President, Paul T. Dacier, stated, “Without equivocation, the death penalty has no place in the fair administration of justice and makes no sense on a practical level.”

The judge who presided over the last capital punishment case in Massachusetts, in 2001, also supports this view. Judge Michael A. Posnor has commented, “The most profound realization I took from [a death penalty sentence] was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes.”

Moreover, death penalty convictions are fraught with racial bias. More racial minorities than whites are executed compared to the minority percentage of the population. A death row defendant is much more likely to be executed if the victim of the crime is white, despite the fact that African-Americans constitute almost half of the murder victims nationwide. Racial equality in sentencing and executions simply does not exist.

It is well known that a sentence of death is no deterrent to crime or murder. Oklahoma and Texas frequently apply the death penalty, but executions there have not diminished the murder rate. The South, which carries out more executions than any other region in the country, also has the highest murder rate.

In fact, year after year, fewer people are killed in states that have no death penalty. Throughout the country, the number of murders has steadily been declining since 1991, regardless of the laws supporting capital punishment.

This month, the Supreme Court will hear a case regarding the use of lethal injections for those condemned to die. The Court could now reverse its previous support for the death penalty and rule broadly to outlaw the practice. Capital punishment truly is and should be justly defined as “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court should abolish it as inhumane, illegitimate, and ineffective.

Drawing of Tsarnev in courtroom by Jane Flavell Collins / AP


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