Days before a jury is scheduled to begin deciding whether to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the parents of the youngest person to die in the Boston Marathon bombing urged federal authorities to consider taking the death penalty off the table.
In a front-page essay published Friday in the Boston Globe, Bill and Denise Richard called on prosecutors to drop the death penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s trial and bring the case to a close. Their 8-year-old son, Martin, was the youngest of the three people killed by the explosions at the marathon finish line and their 7-year-old daughter, Jane, lost a leg. The parents were among the 264 people injured in the April 15, 2013, attack.
“We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed,” the Richards wrote. “We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul.”
But they went on to argue that ending the case would allow them and others to heal and rebuild their lives instead of having to live through years of inevitable appeals if the jury decides on the death penalty.
“We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal,” they wrote.
The essay comes as murder cases across the nation focus on whether and by what means convicted killers should be executed. Several trials, including Tsarnaev’s and the mass murder trial of James E. Holmes, accused in the 2012 movie theater rampage in in Aurora, Colo., are more about the defendant’s punishment than his guilt.
Complicating the death penalty debate is a series of botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona that have raised questions about the current lethal-injection protocol used to execute inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court this term will hear a case brought by Oklahoma inmates who argue the protocol violates their constitutional rights.
Nationally, 32 states have a death penalty and some have recently sought alternatives to lethal injection, such as firing squad and gas chamber. A 2014 Gallup poll found that about 60% of respondents favored execution for a convicted murderer. Only once -- in 1966 -- has Gallup found that more people opposed the death penalty (47%) than favored it (42%). The high point of support for the death penalty was about 80% in 1994.
There is no death penalty for state crimes in Massachusetts. Tsarnaev was convicted on April 8 of federal charges.
The death penalty issue has split the survivor community in Boston. Relatives of other victims have said they support executing Tsarnaev.
A recent poll found that 58% in the greater Boston area support life in prison for Tsarnaev. That number increases to 61% when just city residents are counted, according to a WBUR-FM poll released this week.
“Over the last month, we’ve seen support for life in prison grow by about 10 points” in the Boston area, Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, which conducts surveys for WBUR, a public radio station.
According to the poll, only 31% of Boston area residents said they supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev. That support drops to 26% in the city of Boston.
The earlier WBUR survey was conducted last month, while the first phase of the Tsarnaev trial was ongoing. The latest poll was conducted after he was convicted.
“Even though the bombing happened here … even though it had a deep personal impact on a lot of people … it doesn’t seem to have changed people’s views on the death penalty versus life in prison,” Koczela said. Fifty-seven percent in the Boston area and 63% in the city of Boston oppose the use of the death penalty in general, he said.
The poll surveyed 509 registered Boston area voters between April 10 and 13. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points for the Boston area findings and 6.5 percentage points for the city.
“This is a deeply personal issue and we can speak only for ourselves,” the Richard family wrote.” However, it is clear that peace of mind was taken not just from us, but from all Americans. We honor those who were lost and wish continued strength for all those who were injured.
“We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future — for us, for Boston, and for the country,” they wrote.
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