Last week, the Justice Department announced that it would seek the death penalty for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the accused perpetrator, along with his deceased older brother, of the Boston Marathon bombings last year that killed three people, wounded more than 260, and paralyzed an entire city.
Prosecutors cited Tsarnaev’s lack of remorse and the “heinous, cruel, and depraved manner” of the attacks to argue that the death penalty was warranted.
While we understand the visceral emotions surrounding last April’s terror, we remain categorically opposed to the death penalty—a conviction that requires us to adhere to it in even the most trying cases.
The core of the problem is that laws must be applied universally: To advocate the death penalty for Tsarnaev is inseparable from an endorsement of the policy writ large—one that places hundreds on death row on the basis of wrongful conviction, applies disproportionately to minorities, and can triple the cost of the judicial system.
The method of execution by lethal injection is especially worrisome. Last month, an Ohio inmate who executed by the injection of a new combination of drugs, appeared to convulse and choke for 10 minutes before dying, which seems the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment. The desire to punish heinous criminals is more than understandable, but we must apply our laws in the pursuit of justice, not righteous anger alone.
The attorney general’s decision to seek the death penalty is especially disappointing given that he has previously opposed the death penalty because of the justice system’s imperfections. Holder released a statement saying that “the nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.” But no matter how monstrous the criminal, one can’t argue the death penalty for one criminal without arguing the death penalty for all.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who also personally opposes the death penalty, supports the Justice Department’s decision nonetheless. Thomas M. Menino, Walsh’s predecessor, and a long-time death-penalty opponent, similarly told reporters, “I might think it’s time…that this individual serves his time and [gets] the death penalty.”
But dragging Tsarnaev through the inevitable years of appeals and hearings would only ensure his abiding notoriety and continuously call up the pain of the attacks for the victims and their families.
Though the trial is federal and will not be tried in Massachusetts courts, Tsarnaev’s attack was clearly directed at the Commonwealth. It’s worth noting that 57 percent of Massachusetts residents opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev, compared to 33 percent who were in favor.
Of course, Holder isn’t required to and shouldn’t adhere to public opinion in his prosecutorial decisions. But Massachusetts residents have debated and rejected the death penalty many times. If they were willing to reject the death penalty even after such a heinous crime, Holder could have done the same.