Death sentence gives life to Boston Marathon case


    Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence highlights the key flaws of capital punishment.

    The Richards family, which lost an eight-year-old boy in the Boston bombing, says it better than I can. The death sentence will “bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives….As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and family.”

    In other words, it’s a crock to think that eye-for-an-eye justice brings closure.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The feds punted on closure when they decided to put Tsarnaev on trial for his life. They could’ve put the kid in a Supermax prison, with no prospect for parole, and kept him there until his last breath – the defense team had offered a guilty plea, with life in prison – and that would’ve been the end of him. But no. The feds, led by Attorney General Eric Holder, wanted to send a message, or something.

    So they dragged us through 10 weeks of testimony from 100 witnesses, with a jury that did not reflect the sentiments of the community. According to a Boston Globe poll, only 15 percent of Bostonians, and 19 percent of residents statewide, wanted Tsarnaev to die. But no foes of the death penalty were allowed to serve. And now that the feds have gotten the sentence they sought, the taxpayer tab will be far higher than it would be if Tsnarnaev had simply been jailed.

    Because this is what always happens in death penalty cases. The terrorist’s defense team is already signaling that it will appeal the sentence on any number of grounds – pre-trial publicity, the judge’s refusal to move the Boston venue, just for starters – and this will go on for years, with Tsarnaev back in the news, with the government incurring ever-higher legal and administrative costs. And housing Tsarnaev on death row (single rooms, extra guards) is more expensive than jailing him in a Supermax.

    At last count, 15 states – red and blue alike – have concluded in separate studies that the death penalty is a costly bureaucratic mess. Kansas discovered that because death penalty cases string out for so many years, the costs are four times higher than all other kinds of cases. New Jersey, shortly before abolishing its death penalty, discovered that its taxpayers, during the previous 23 years alone, had paid $253,000,000  for “a capital punishment system that has executed no one.”

    Tsarnaev will be the 62nd inmate on federal death row, but since 1963 the feds have only executed three people. Stats like these are prompting even many conservatives to give up on the death penalty. As David Burge, a Georgia GOP official, wrote recently in the Atlanta newspaper, “The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful, and risky government program.”

    Perhaps we would be sending “an unmistakable message” to terrorists if and when we kill off Tsarnaev years from now, as The Wall Street Journal editorial page argued this weekend, but Boston criminologist James Fox – co-author of a book on serial and mass murder – has the better argument. He argued this weekend that life in prison would’ve sent this message: “Not only does the United States not tolerate terrorism, but it does not need to kill in order to make the point.”

    By the way, here’s what The Journal considered unacceptable: “If (Tsarnaev) had been sentenced to life in a federal Supermax prison, his remaining years would have been spent in a tiny concrete cell, 23 hours a day, constantly alone, with barely a sight of sky and none of the country.”

    Gee, I don’t know. That sounds like justice.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal