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Editorials

The Death Penalty is Wrong. Every Single Time.

By The Crimson Editorial Board

On Friday, March 4, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. A federal jury originally sentenced Tsarnaev to death in 2015, a decision that was later overturned by a federal appeals court in 2020. In early 2014, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, we expressed sympathy for the city of Boston and denounced the attacks, but remained “categorically opposed to the death penalty.” As the court said, “Just to be crystal clear … Dzhokhar will remain confined to prison for the rest of his life, with the only question remaining being whether the government will end his life by executing him.” In 2022, our stance has not changed — the death penalty should not exist.

Consider that the Supreme Court’s verdict follows a wave of 13 federal executions carried out by the Trump administration in the span of six months, the first federal killings in 17 years; the 2021 execution of Oklahoma inmate John Marion Grant by lethal injection, during which Grant convulsed and vomited on his gurney as he lay dying; and the Biden administration’s reinstatement of the federal moratorium on the death penalty just last July.

For some, opposing the death penalty may be a matter of principle: Because each human life is special and important, ending it is impermissible in every instance. We are inclined to agree, but such moral absolutes are hard to reconcile with the harsh realities faced by people who have been hurt by acts of violence. It is not our place to argue moral right and wrong with the victims of the Boston bombing or the victims of violence anywhere.

While we can understand why some may support the death penalty, we remain unconvinced that the death penalty should be legally permissible. We don’t believe that the death penalty accomplishes either retribution or determent.

With regard to the former, each individual who has experienced violence has a different idea of what justice and healing look like. Some demand that those responsible pay with their lives, others choose to forgive. No one, however, should have their wounds continually reopened by the long process of appeals and reversals that capital punishment decisions often entail. Even when the perpetrator is executed, it is not as though the pain of losing a loved one will suddenly dissipate. In the end, the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment that is neither guaranteed to be worth the years of anguish spent waiting nor capable of healing trauma caused by violence.

With respect to determent, capital punishment may actually end up doing more harm than good. In cases of ideological violence such as the Boston Marathon bombing, execution can make a martyr of a perpetrator. Far from discouraging future acts of violence, the death penalty risks providing fodder for radicalization and provoking further retaliatory attacks. Not to mention, in the case of suicide attacks where the perpetrator lacks regard for their own life and safety, the death penalty fails immediately to be even a penalty.

Ultimately, we are left with a bleak picture. When confronted with tremendous losses caused by acts of extreme violence, it is understandable for us to seek some sort of action to take — actions that can emphasize our agency and counter the paralyzing feeling of powerlessness. But the death penalty is not this action.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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