Yesterday afternoon, prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing case announced that Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized them to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two suspects believed to have carried out the bombing. Tsarnaev’s older brother Tamerlan and second suspect was killed by police during a fire fight shortly after the bombing.
Tsarnaev will face 30 charges related to the bombing that left three people dead and nearly 200 injured. He will also face additional charges for the killing of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, who was allegedly killed by the Tsarnaevs as they tried to flee the area. In a prepared statement, Attorney General Holder stated, “[t]he nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.”
Federal prosecutors assigned to the case also defended the decision, stating that Tsarnaev “enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen [then] betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people in the United States.” The prosecutors also noted that Tsarnaev showed a distinct lack of remorse in the course of his actions.
The decision has had mixed reviews so far in Massachusetts. Polls taken by The Boston Globe showed that only 33% of Bostonians supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev while 57% favored a life sentence. Jarrod Clowery, whose legs were severely burned and peppered with shrapnel during the bombing, told reporters, “It has no bearing on my life whatsoever … I don’t even think about the trial or anything like that. [The attackers] were tried and convicted by a power higher than us the moment they did what they did.”
As it stands now, Tsarnaev is almost sure to be convicted on most, if not all charges against him. There is little threat of him escaping prison and he has virtually no chance of parole. As Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick put it, “One way or another, based on the evidence, Tsarnaev will die in prison.”
It is understandable to want to punish an accused terrorist, especially when the alleged crime is as heinous as this one. But is the death penalty really worth the extra litigation when it seems clear that the majority of people impacted by the attack do not favor it? It might be time for prosecutors to use their discretion to set aside eye-for-an-eye ideals and seek a less controversial form of punishment for Tsarnaev. That is not to say that the death penalty would not fit this crime, and it is certainly applicable under current law. However, putting Tsarnaev to death probably will not bring peace to the victims and their families but a swift, efficient trial might, and seeking the death penalty will probably not allow that to happen.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research