The death verdict for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing has, not surprisingly, prompted a range of reaction, from satisfaction at justice done to condemnation of a barbaric punishment.
What was surprising was the difference between the reactions of Bostonians and Americans generally. Only 15 percent of local residents wanted him executed, whereas some 60 percent of Americans said they thought he should get the death penalty, according to public opinion polls.
One might have expected the opposite: that those in whose own city this horrible act was perpetrated would have been more inclined to impose the harsher punishment than those who live farther away. That this is not the case can be attributed to the liberal leanings of the people of Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts abolished the death penalty for state crimes in 1984 and has not carried out an execution since 1947.
It was likely only due to the “death-qualified” requirement — that members of the jury avow beforehand that they would vote for the death penalty if the law demanded it — that the verdict was such.
At the same time, the contrast of local with national opinion in this case also highlights the moral complexities of an issue that has stubbornly refused to go away.
The families of the victims in Boston appeared more in favor of the death penalty than others in the city. They were the most directly affected and suffered far more than anyone else. Some would say that entitles them to have the most say in the punishment.
Nor are they the ones who will put him to death; it is the federal government that will do so. Thus, it is not strictly the affair of the victims. In a sense, we are all putting him to death. That gives everyone a say in it.
Every case in which the death penalty is involved reignites the issue. Those who oppose it are moved by fresh repugnance to stiffen their opposition; those who favor it point to the suffering of new victims that cry out for fitting punishment.
The Boston Marathon bombing was, in a sense, a model case. The evidence was overwhelming, incontrovertible and horrific; the defendant expressed no remorse; and even a supposedly “unbeatable” defense attorney could not persuade the jury that Tsarnaev was just a mixed-up kid. If the death penalty ever applies, it should apply in this case. It took the jurors only 14 hours to agree.
If there is one good thing to be said about the whole gruesome, agonizing experience, it is that the varied reactions to the verdict reveal a certain nobility among people. That the controversy about taking a life — even that of a heinous terrorist whose guilt leaves no doubt — bespeaks the high value that Americans place on human life, and that includes the 60 percent who favor the death penalty.
Those who say they supported the death penalty did so with a heavy heart. All realize that it will not bring back the dead or the lost limbs, and that the finality of execution doesn’t guarantee “closure.”
Liz Norden, whose sons, Paul and J. P., lost legs in the bombing, said, “I feel justice for my family… I have to watch my two sons put a leg on every day, so, I mean, I don’t know — closure? But I can tell you, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
The comments of state officials who supported the jury’s verdict also reflected this reality. When Boston Mayor Martin Walsh voiced a hope for closure, it was only “a small amount of closure … we will forever remember…” he said.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who called it “a fitting punishment,” could also only hope for “some measure of closure to the victims and their families.”
Furthermore, it would be naive to think that putting Tsarnaev to death puts the legal case to rest. Now come the inevitable legal appeals, yet more media coverage and the grief they prolong. “It’s going to be at least a decade,” said John Blume, a death penalty expert at Cornell Law School.
For the victims and their families, that is cruel and unusual punishment.
If what we seek is not only justice but closure — and that justice demands a certain measure of finality to the suffering of victims — then what is needed now is a serious effort to shorten the appeals period. The constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial; it does not guarantee the right to 10 years to try to undo the outcome of a trial.