Two headlines captured the ambivalence felt by many after a federal jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The Los Angeles Times: “Death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brings relief to many in Boston."
The New York Times: “Death sentence for Boston Bomber ... unsettles city he tore apart."
By large margins, residents of Boston--and the rest of Massachusetts--opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev. Yet a significant majority of Americans favored imposing it.
The disconnect is startling, but understandable. Massachusetts is a deep blue state with an admirable history of progressive politics, including (as you may remember from the 2012 presidential campaign) universal health coverage for all its residents.
Massachusetts courts abolished the death penalty in 1984, and legislators have resisted the efforts of conservative politicians, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, to reinstate it.
Nationally, support for the death penalty is slipping. Last June, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans – 52%--said they preferred convicted murderers get life in prison without parole instead of death. The poll was taken a little more than a month after Oklahoma botched the execution of a convicted murderer.
Tsarnaev was tried in federal court, where the government does not need the concurrence of Massachusetts to ask a jury to impose the ultimate punishment.
Though the death penalty automatically triggers what will amount to years of expensive appeals (which abolitionists also cite as an argument against executions), Tsarnaev will likely be put to death long before the end of his natural life.
I think that will be a shame.
I hold with many death penalty opponents who believe that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a far more just punishment for a healthy 21-year-old.
I believe that Tsarnaev, who inflicted so much pain, should face a lifetime of punishment and reflection. He should spend the next decades reading, thinking and contemplating the horror of his crimes.
Though he remained stone faced through most of his trial, it’s possible that Tsarnaev will grow as a human being, fully grasp the enormity of his actions and perhaps even seek forgiveness from those on whom he has inflicted such pain.
On Friday, I spoke to Ben Jones, a 30-year-old marathoner who completed the Boston race before the bombs were detonated.
Jones, who lives in Lawrence, Kan., also happens to be a campaign strategist for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a group that is far more resolute in its stance against capital punishment than its name would suggest.
“I’m against the death penalty in all cases, including this one,” said Jones. “I grew up supporting it for religious reasons, but I started changing my mind when I heard about innocent people being exonerated.”
Jones said he was especially perturbed by cases in which prosecutors ignored compelling evidence of innocence and pushed for death “because they’d rather sacrifice an innocent life than admit they’d made a mistake.”
He does not believe that Tsarnaev is innocent – far from it.
“What he did was awful, horrific and caused immense pain,” said Jones, “but going for the death penalty and getting it will keep the process alive for years and years.”
For death penalty opponents, there was one bright spot on Friday. Just before the Boston jury handed down its decision, legislators in deeply conservative Nebraska moved to abolish execution in their state. They are expected to take a final vote on the measure this week.
The state’s Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has vowed to veto it, but legislators believe they can override him.
“I think the trend is away from the death penalty,” said Jones. “If you would have said 10 or 20 years ago after a major terrorist attack that you would have a majority of residents at the attack being against the death penalty, most people would have said, ‘I doubt that.’”
In 2012, Connecticut abolished its death penalty. This year, a Republican legislator in Kansas introduced a bill to repeal that state’s death penalty. The bill is stuck in committee, and if it does not come up for a vote this session, it will likely be introduced again. (Thirty-two states, including California, still allow executions. As does the federal government and the U.S. military.)
The conservative argument against capital punishment is not just that it saves public money, nor nor even that so many innocents have been put to death or exonerated after years on death row. Increasingly, lawmakers with strong religious beliefs consider execution a violation of their Christian beliefs.
And it is perhaps this argument that will prove the most persuasive of all.
“At the end of the day,” said Jones, “I can’t imagine Jesus supporting the death penalty.”
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