The federal jury that recently convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of participating in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing today unanimously voted to sentence him to death.
The death sentence is the end of a brutal process for the 12 jurors who sat through weeks of gut-wrenching testimony about the callous actions of the defendant and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that led to the death of three marathon spectators and an MIT police officer, along with the injuries of hundreds more. The prosecution presented photographs at trial that showed the defendant placing a backpack containing a bomb immediately behind a row of marathon fans, including an eight-year-old boy who was killed. The boy’s father testified at trial and told his horrific story about leaving his son on the sidewalk to tend to his young daughter, who had a leg blown off by the bomb. Many other victims and first responders testified about the war-like atmosphere that overtook Boylston Street on that sunny April day.
Following the underlying trial, where the defendant was convicted of every charge against him, the punishment phase of the trial commenced. Given that the defendant’s defense team conceded his guilt during its opening statement, the real drama was whether the jury would spare his life. During the penalty phase, the government presented more gruesome details of the attack and its aftermath while the defense team attempted to humanize the defendant. Previous friends and teachers testified that he appeared to be a good person. Several of his relatives were flown to Massachusetts from Russia to testify about his dysfunctional upbringing. A nun who is famous for her opposition to the death penalty testified that she met with the defendant and he was remorseful for his involvement in the bombing. The jury also heard evidence about the so-called Supermax Prison in Colorado where the defendant would have likely served a life sentence. The jury was not persuaded by the defendant’s arguments. While the judge still has to formally sentence the defendant at a later date, he is required to impose the death penalty that has been recommended by the jury.
The jury’s decision is understandable. If the law allows for the death penalty to be imposed on our worst criminals, then this defendant appears to be a perfect candidate for execution. His crime, and its devastating consequences, is more senseless than most. The defendant was certainly old enough (19 at the time of the bombing) to stand up to his brother and refuse to participate in this despicable act of terrorism.
However, there is a strong argument to be made that the death penalty is not appropriate in any case, including this one. Most civilized countries view capital punishment as barbaric. There is no evidence it is a deterrent. It ends up being much more expensive to execute a prisoner (usually after the prisoner has been incarcerated for more than a decade) than to imprison him for life. And, at the end of the day, a compelling argument can be made that the government does not have the moral authority to execute a prisoner, regardless of that prisoner’s indefensible crime.
As a result of the death sentence in this case, the appellate process will now begin. The defendant’s strongest argument may be that the trial never should have occurred in Boston to begin with, given the deep impact the bombing had on the residents. The case will not be considered by an appeals court for several years.