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Boston and the Marathon bombing survivors can’t shake Tsarnaev — unless Biden acts now

The president has several options available to him to end the death penalty, at least temporarily.

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Celeste Corcoran stands on the marathon finish line in 2016 as she waits for runners in her running group, 50 Legs, to cross. Celeste lost both legs in the 2013 marathon bombing. Officials let her stand there to watch the runners.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

We shouldn’t still be talking about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The surviving perpetrator of the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt that left five people dead and Greater Boston reeling should be the last person on our minds, particularly as we focus on emerging from the deadly and economically devastating havoc of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tsarnaev will never leave prison alive, and that’s where he should be forgotten. Except for in the annals of history, his memory should be left to rot even as he still draws breath.

But the Supreme Court’s decision this week to grant an appeal in his case — unfortunately — brings him back to the spotlight. The appeal, made during the Trump administration, seeks to reverse an order of the Boston-based First Circuit Court of Appeals vacating his sentence because of some jurors’ failure to disclose what they knew about the case before trial.

Such appeals are par for the course in capital punishment cases. So are the reminders of the horrors of crimes committed. Whether we like it or not, Americans in Massachusetts and beyond are confronted by those memories, and by Tsarnaev.


His mug shot is again displayed on television screens. This newspaper and others must again waste ink in his name. And those whose loss from his heinous actions hits closest to home — the families of Martin Richard, 8; Lingzi Lu, 23; 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, MIT police officer Sean Collier, 27; and Boston police officer Dennis Simmonds, 28, who died a year later of injuries he suffered during the Watertown shootout — must relive a nightmare all over again, and likely not for the last time as the case makes its way up and down the appeals process.


This is but one of the many injustices that typically flow from the federal death penalty: Even in cases where there is no question of guilt, no doubt about a convict’s culpability and no disagreement that he should never walk the streets again, those impacted most must be made to suffer, again and again, from a protracted process that brings anything but closure to all involved. Survivors of the attack will have their emotional wounds ripped open again. A city that has suffered enough will have to relive its worst day in recent history.

That is, unless President Biden acts, and fast.

Biden, who opposes the federal death penalty and campaigned on a promise to end it, has so far not made a move to do so. But he has several options available to him to stop the practice, at least temporarily. He could withdraw the government’s appeal in the Tsarnaev case or order the Justice Department to halt all federal executions, rendering the Supreme Court case moot, probably causing its dismissal. He could also urge Congress to pass, so that he may sign, legislation sponsored by Representative Ayanna Pressley to end federal executions permanently.

But he needs to act before the justices hear arguments in the case later this year.

If Biden needs more motivation to make good on his campaign promise, he need only recall the faces of the victims’ families and survivors of the bombing when he attended the one-year memorial in 2014 and honored them for their courage.


He can heed, if belatedly, the pleas of the families of Richard and Collier, who feared this ceaseless amplification of their anguish and urged against the imposition of the death penalty in Tsarnaev’s case in the first place.

He can look to evidence that shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime.

He can examine the history of racial and economic disparities in the imposition of the death penalty, or consider the arbitrariness in the sentencing that has led to 156 exonerations, meaning that one in 10 people sent to death row has been wrongly convicted and set free since the sentence was reinstated in 1973.

He can consider the plummeting support for the death penalty — a majority of Americans now oppose it.

He can consult his own faith and the Bible that says that Jesus, who served as a juror of sorts himself in a death penalty case, said “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.”

And he can ask his own newly-installed Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former Boston mayor who invited Biden to the memorial ceremony and a death penalty opponent. Walsh stated that he supported “the process” that sent Tsarnaev to death row, but after his sentence was overturned, Walsh put the focus where it should be: “on supporting the families, the survivors, and all the people of our great city.”


This is precisely what Walsh should impress upon Biden. Enough is enough.