The words, “What should happen to Jahar?” are taped to a whiteboard in a middle school classroom in Brockton, where the teacher has made the death penalty part of his curriculum.
A Boston College professor from Lexington said her two sons, ages 10 and 14, have been peppering her with questions around the dinner table about the fate of Dzhokhar (Jahar) Tsarnaev.
And customers at a Falmouth coffee shop this week debated capital punishment after one of them pointed to Tsarnaev’s picture in a newspaper and asked, “How about that kid?”
Whether Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death will ultimately be decided by 12 jurors in federal court, but the topic is now high on the minds of many in the Boston area. Most have never before been exposed to such a high-profile death penalty case, this one involving an avowed terrorist whose crimes affected a broad swath of the community.
The case has turned residents into spectators of one of the most profound uses of government power. It has triggered soul-searching about what is the appropriate punishment for someone who showed such callousness toward human life — and has yet to exhibit remorse or emotion in the courtroom — yet before his arrest, was only 19, had no criminal record, and came from a fractured, troubled family.
Usha Tummala-Narra, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Boston College, said she has been part of many debates at work and home about Tsarnaev and remains “very confused” about what she believes is the suitable punishment — death or life in prison without parole.
She said her professional life calls on her to be compassionate toward young people suffering emotional setbacks, but she also thinks that the death penalty is a fair punishment for monstrous crimes that affect her family’s — and the public’s — safety. That Tsarnaev’s crimes were committed in the name of jihad-inspired violence against America makes a difference to her.
“It’s about making a statement that we are not tolerant of terrorism or terrorist acts,” Tummala-Narra said.
She said Tsarnaev’s fate has come up many times during meals with her two sons, and she and her husband try to simply present the facts.
“We definitely want to guide them and want them to develop their own views,” she said, adding she sees it as an opportunity to teach them about law and punishment.
As early as next week, the jurors will be dealing with a decision that sits at the harshest edge of our criminal justice system. Having convicted the former Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School wrestling team captain on Wednesday of all 30 counts that he faced, including 17 that carry possible capital punishment, the same jurors will turn their attention to the penalty phase, which is likely to last about a month. In order for Tsarnaev to be sentenced to death, each of the 12 jurors must vote in favor of it.
Without that unanimous vote, the former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student will be sentenced to life in prison without parole and would likely be assigned to a super-maximum prison in Colorado, where he would live in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours a day.
Until now, Massachusetts residents have had relatively little exposure to capital punishment. There has not been an execution here in nearly seven decades, and the state death penalty law was abolished in 1984. Since the federal government enacted its new death penalty statutes in 1988, there have been only two federal death penalty trials here, though neither involved crimes matching the scope of the Boston Marathon bombings.
“There was a collective trauma from that week,” said Laura Everett, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which lobbies against the death penalty. “Many of us have a stake, and it elevates the discussion. Many of us are having the conversation — what is just?”
The next phase of the trial is likely to add human complexity to the case, as jurors will hear the defense for the first time give a robust presentation on why Tsarnaev should live.
They are also likely to hear about Tsarnaev’s difficult family life, with Russian-speaking parents from the former Soviet Union who failed to assimilate to American life, two older sisters with troubled marriages, and a domineering jihadist-radicalized older brother, Tamerlan.
Jurors may also hear from scientists who specialize in the immaturity of the teenage brain. The defense may also call prison specialists to testify that they can appropriately care for someone like Tsarnaev who might spend decades in prison before he dies.
The case has become a popular topic of discussion in some classrooms.
Patrick Healy, who teaches English to nonnative speakers in Beverly, used the trial’s verdict this week to discuss how his students would vote if they were jurors. He said his class is made up of seven adults from Iraq, Greece, Russia, Ukraine, and Albania — and all of them, except an Iraqi student, supported executing Tsarnaev.
“They were definitely very engaged,” Healy said. “Everybody has an opinion about it.”
Robert Granich, an English as a second language teacher at the Ashfield Middle School in Brockton, said that during recent class discussions about Tsarnaev’s punishment, the overwhelming majority of his students, who are mostly from Haiti, supported a sentence of life in prison without parole. He said his adolescent students were swayed by his youth, and the role of Tsarnaev’s older brother.
Granich said it is common for older siblings to play a dominant role in some immigrant cultures.
On a whiteboard where Granich asked his students to post their views, one student wrote, “Since he came from a very bad family I think they should give him another chance!”
Consideration of Tsarnaev’s youth also came from some customers at Coffee Obsession in Falmouth, who started a spontaneous discussion about the death penalty after seeing news of Tsarnaev’s conviction. Jeremy Billadeau, 39, said they agreed that the decision would be more clear cut if Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the one facing capital punishment. As for the recently convicted younger Tsarnaev, “He doesn’t seem like the mastermind,” Billadeau said.
Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor and father of two from Swampscott, said this region has not in a long time had a death penalty trial that resonates the way this one does. It pits the state’s historical resistance to the death penalty against an extremely heinous crime that is “seared into people’s minds.”
He has made clear his opposition to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, but he is continually challenged by colleagues, neighbors, and relatives with passionate opposing views.
“It’s top of mind for just about everyone,” he said.