When even little Martin Richard’s family is opposed, how do you think the rest of us feel?
No victim of the Boston Marathon bombings was more poignant, perhaps, than eight-year-old Martin Richard. It was a photo of a smiling Martin, who was from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, holding up a handmade sign saying, “No more hurting people,” that seemed to underscore the callousness of the acts and the innocence of the victims. Yet even as the trial focused on the trauma suffered by the Richard family–not only was Martin killed, but his sister Jane lost her left leg and his mother and father were also severely injured–the family itself issued a statement urging the prosecution to abandon its quest for the death penalty.
That a family so tragically and permanently affected by these terrible acts could still take such a principled stand sums up how a lot of people in Massachusetts feel about the death penalty imposed Friday on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 bombings. Some might think the opposition to the sentence carries a whiff of hypocrisy with it. This deep-blue state has been long known for its opposition to capital punishment, but apparently those noble principles have been trumped by cold reality. Even liberals, it seems, will seek harsh vengeance when it’s their children getting killed and their streets red with blood.
In fact, though, Massachusetts and its principles have acquitted themselves quite well. The death penalty trial was imposed by the federal government against the wishes of the state. By a wide majority, the Bay State’s citizens opposed the ultimate punishment for Tsarnaev. So too did some of the victims. And perhaps most troubling of all, the jury’s verdict will bring little measure of closure. Rather than Tsarnaev disappearing anonymously behind bars for the rest of his days, his case will be appealed and fought. Death by execution, if it ever comes, may be decades away.
The last executions in Massachusetts were in 1947. Since then, the state had become increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty. A Boston Globe poll conducted during the Tsarnaev trial, for example, found only 30 percent of the state’s residents supported the death penalty. That contrasts markedly to national polls which show that – despite growing reservations about its use – it still has solid support.
But it’s clear that, soon after the bombings, the fate of Dzhokhar was quickly politicized. Some members of Congress, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, wanted to treat him as an enemy combatant. It was a dubious idea which would have meant trying him – a U.S. citizen – in military courts without basic constitutional protections. In response, the Department of Justice pushed to federalize the case, taking it out of the hands of the state. A key reason for that: Massachusetts law doesn’t permit the death penalty. Federal law does.
Tsarnaev’s trial then kicked off with a controversy. In order to sit on the jury, jurors had to be “death qualified” – meaning they were comfortable in imposing execution. Given that only a minority of residents fit that qualification, the pool of potential jurors shrank. And, of course, the resulting jury was almost by definition more biased in favor of capital punishment than would have been a representative cross section of the state.
From there, the trial was split into two parts–a guilt phase and a penalty phase. There was almost no disagreement about the facts of the case. In her opening remarks on March 4, defense attorney Judy Clarke flatly admitted Tsarnaev’s culpability. “There’s little … that we dispute,” she said. “It was him.” On Monday afternoon, April 15, 2013, Dzhokhar and his elder brother Tamerlan placed backpacks containing homemade bombs on two locations along Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay. The street was packed with crowds cheering runners making their way to the finish line. The bombs detonated within 12 seconds of each other, killing three and injuring more than 260. Left dead were little Martin; Krystle Campbell, a restaurant manager from nearby Medford; and Chinese grad student Lingzi Lu. Days later, the brothers – now on the run — murdered MIT police office Sean Collier. Tamerlan died after an exchange of gunfire with police; Dzhokhar was eventually found hiding in a boat in residential backyard.
Nevertheless, the guilt portion of the trial proceeded for over a month, the prosecution using its witnesses to underscore the brutality of Tsarnaev’s actions and the devastation he wrought.
After a two week break–during which Boston’s 119th Marathon was run–the jury met again to consider the penalty it should levy. The court of public opinion was also engaged in similar deliberations. The two came to opposite conclusions.
The same Boston Globe poll that found little support for the death penalty in general found even less when it came to Tsarnaev. Just 19 percent thought he should be put to death while almost 63 percent favored life imprisonment (the rest were unsure).
Others affected by the bombings had similar sentiments. In a Facebook post, Jennifer Lemmerman, sister to murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier, wrote, “Whenever someone speaks out against the death penalty, they are challenged to imagine how they would feel if someone they love were killed. I’ve been given that horrible perspective and I can say that my position has only strengthened.”
Added to that were serious questions about Tsarnaev’s youth–he was only 19 at the time of the attacks–affectionate stories about him from classmates and friends, and worries about the outsized influence his radicalized older brother exerted on him. Indeed, the drumbeat of opposition to the death penalty was at such a level that it seemed to put US Attorney Carmen Ortiz on the defensive, causing her to issue a statement saying she cared “deeply” about the views of the Richard family but also “the views of the other victims and survivors.” To most of those following the trial – and especially because imposing the death penalty required unanimity among the 12 jurors–it seemed overwhelmingly likely the verdict would be life in prison.
But the jurors lived in a court-created bubble. They didn’t see the polls and they didn’t read the Richard family statement. Instead, day after day they watched Tsarnaev. Despite Sister Helen Prejean–she of “Dead Man Walking” fame – recounting Tsarnaev telling her, “No one deserves to suffer like they did,” the defendant sat stone-faced, evidencing little reaction to even the most gut-wrenching testimony. Even if Dzhokhar had been unduly influenced by his brother, jurors must have wondered, shouldn’t that influence have waned after two years? Where was the remorse?
There’s public respect for the jury’s efforts, but much disagreement as well. And concerns of ethics and morality aside, much of that disagreement is practical. The Richard family’s argument for life imprisonment was that the death penalty “could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives.” And it will.
In a few days there will be a sentencing hearing where trial judge George O’Toole, Jr., will make official the jury’s decision. From there, Tsarnaev likely heads to Death Row in Terra Haute, Indiana. After that – and as predicted by the Richards — will begin the appeals. There are grounds (ranging from jury selection to trial timing to the release of inflammatory material) that will provide grist for the media for many years to come. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family,” the Richard family wrote. That minute is on hold.
This column was first published in Politico Magazine on May 16, 2015.