The Boston Bomber Death Penalty: Justice?

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Boston bombing flower memorial

On 15 April 2013, a terrorist act took place that would alter the images that come to mind when we hear of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and hundreds were injured when two pressure-cooker bombs used exploded near the finish line.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty after a three-month long trial of 30 offences, seventeen of which were punishable by the death penalty. And after 14 and a half hours of deliberations, the jury sentenced the ‘Boston bomber’ to death.

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The legal team acting for 21-year-old Tsarnaev essentially argued that he had been under the gripping influence of his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Tsarnaev was represented by one of the most prominent defence attorney’s around, Judy Clarke, who argued against the death penalty on the basis that the ultimate punishment should be reserved for the “worst of the worst” – which Tsarnaev is not.

The defence spoke of him as “a good kid” who fell under the malevolent influence of his older brother, and Russian relatives told the court that he was a sweet child, who cried while watching ‘The Lion King.’

This contrasted with the cold-blooded killer that the prosecution spoke of during the course of the proceedings – when they asserted that Tsarnaev had planted his pressure-cooker bomb behind a group of children.

The court was told that Tsarnaev was ‘genuinely sorry’ for what he did – yet on the day of arraignment (the formal reading of the charges against him), he gave the finger to the camera in his cell, and the jury did not believe that he was remorseful.

A martyr’s death

60% of Americans believe that Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty, though the feelings of the families who lost loved ones are mixed.

William Campbell, the father of a 29-year-old woman who died as a result of the bombing, was pleased with the outcome. He believes the system offers justice and that the jury did their job. Others who were injured agreed. One runner who nearly bled to death and whose mother lost both legs, stated that the sentence of ‘an eye for an eye’ represented justice and would allow them to move on.

But the parents of eight-year-old Martin Richard pleaded with the prosecution to take the death penalty off the table, and instead have Tsarnaev serve a life sentence.

It has been suggested that Americans should rethink the purpose of the death penalty, because Tsarnaev and others like him seek the glory of martyrdom. For him, they say, being kept alive may be a worse punishment: that the mundane existence in prison after the publicity fades is worse of a fate for someone seeking a hero’s death.

Others believe that Tsarnaev could be useful if kept alive, and could shed light on issues surrounding the bombings: including why he participated and how he was radicalised.

A decade of appeals could follow

While some cited closure as their reason for supporting the death penalty, the reality can ironically be quite the opposite.

The lengthy appeals process in America means that Tsarnaev is unlikely to be executed anytime soon. In the USA, out only three out of the 340 prisoners sentenced to federal death row in the last 50 years have actually been executed.

Several of those on death row have been working through the appeal process for more than 20 years. And in Tsarnaev’s case, his lawyer has already stated at least two grounds for an appeal.

His case could well drag on for over a decade, setting in place a chain of appeals similar to those which occurred in Indonesia with Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

That pair’s remarkable rehabilitation led to a change in public opinion the lead-up to their death. By the time the pair was executed this year, the futility of killing two men who had reformed over many years became clear to many. Whether or not Tsarnaev will go through a similar transformation remains to be seen.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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