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Remembering Marathon Attacks, Students Grapple with Death Penalty

Almost all watched on TV, but not everyone recognized the street names. Almost all remember the news coverage, but not every Harvard student remembers a campus on lockdown.

On April 15, 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly set down two backpacks loaded with explosives at the end of the Boston Marathon, some current Harvard students were on their way to Visitas, some were still in high school, and some were at the marathon itself.

For some underclassmen hailing from far away, the Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy cushioned by distance. The attack felt more real when they set foot on streets they had seen only in headlines, students said.

Courthouse of the Tsarnaev Trial
The trial of Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev began last week at the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse in South Boston.

“I think I realize the gravity of the situation more now that I’m here at Harvard,” said Hueyjong Shih ’18, of Maryland. “It hits closer to home.”

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For many students who were on campus or who grew up in the Boston area, the attack felt much more personal. Some local students said they can identify a connection to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother who is currently on trial for 30 charges, 17 of which are capital offenses that carry the death penalty. Tsarnaev once worked as a lifeguard at a Harvard pool and went to school a few blocks down from Annenberg Hall.

Reed E. McConnell ’15 remembers watching the empty streets from her window in Hampden swing housing. That day, she mostly stayed indoors and avoided the dining halls, she said.  

McConnell, an inactive Crimson editorial editor, ended up writing her thesis about the aftermath of the bombings, focusing on the emotional response of the residents of Watertown, where Tsarnaev was eventually discovered.

“I felt a lot of things toward [Tsarnaev] that made me uncomfortable,” said McConnell, who is from Boston. “He wrestled with my best friend's boyfriend. He was the running partner of my mom’s co-worker’s son...It very much felt like he could have been someone I grew up with.”

McConnell does not support the death penalty. She said she is upset with the decision to keep the trial in Boston, where she said it might be harder for Tsarnaev to get an unbiased trial.

“I think he did it; I think it’s horrifying that he did it,” she said. “I also think that it's important for us to recognize that he’s still a human being.”

Henry C. Cousins ’17, for his part, is open to the death penalty. He said that while he is from Boston, the attack did not necessarily feel personal, a fact that does not change his animosity towards Tsarnaev.

“I would certainly consider [the death penalty],” he said. “I certainly can’t make a statement like that until I understand the case fully, but...I don't think [the death penalty] would be out of the question.”

In opening statements, Tsarnaev’s defense admitted his guilt, in an apparent attempt to sway jurors away from the death penalty. Witnesses are currently being examined in the guilt phase of the trial. If he is convicted, the jury of 12 will then decide whether he receives a death sentence.

“This is a historic case, no matter what your interest is,” said Harrison D. Phelps ’18, a resident of Easton, Mass. “This is going to be one of the most important cases in U.S. history.”

—Staff writer Samuel E. Liu can be reached at samuel.liu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @samuelliu96.

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