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Death sentence not the end for Tsarnaev

Jane Collins/REUTERS

US District Judge George O'Toole spoke during the sentencing phase of the trial.

By Globe Staff 

The US government hasn’t executed anyone in 12 years. That’s not because there’s some official moratorium. Criminals continue to be sentenced to death in the federal courts, but the journey from trial to execution is slow, winding, and expensive.

Even though the jury has sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for the Boston Marathon bombings, today’s verdict isn’t the end, so much as the beginning of the next phase, as his lawyers may pursue every avenue of appeal to stave off execution.

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In April, the family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in the attacks, expressed concern that a lengthy appeals process could force them to keep “reliving the most painful day of our lives.” And judging from other cases, those concerns have merit. Before it’s over, the appeals process could easily take a decade and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How many people has the US sentenced to death?

For 16 years, from 1972 to 1988, there was no federal death penalty in the United States. Since its reintroduction, 74 people (not including Tsarnaev) have been sentenced to die by the federal courts. Yet, only three of those 74 have been executed, all between 2001 and 2003. Ten have had their sentences reduced (or lifted).

The rest are still sitting on death row, waiting out the lengthy appeals process. Roughly half of them have been waiting for more than 10 years, and some for over 20.

Don’t the states execute people?

Yes. Many more people are executed by the states than through the federal system, where Tsarnaev is being tried.

Last year, there were 35 state executions, the overwhelming majority of them in Texas, Missouri, and Florida.

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Even in the states, though, only a fraction of death sentences have been carried out. Compared to those 35 executions, there are about 3,000 people living on death row in the states, including 743 in California, which hasn’t held an execution since 2006.

Massachusetts is one of 18 states that doesn’t allow the death penalty. Tsarnaev faces the possibility of death because he’s being tried in federal court.

Do death sentences save the public money?

No. It costs far more to execute criminals than it does to incarcerate them for life. That may sound counterintuitive, since in theory an execution could avoid years, or perhaps decades, of prison costs. But pursuing that execution more than cancels out any savings.

Trial costs alone balloon in death penalty cases, because the higher stakes — and greater likelihood of appeal — translate into more work for lawyers and experts, and make for longer jury selection. Then, once the trial is over, the multi-part appeals process begins, requiring ever more court time and expense.

What’s more, as prisoners wait on death row, they generally get heightened security, which means higher incarceration costs.

A review of death penalty cases in Maryland found that they were between 65 and 175 percent more expensive than other, comparable murder cases. A separate study in Kansas found a similar difference.

At this point in Tsarnaev’s case, this cost gap between execution and imprisonment is narrower, because we’ve already been through the more expensive death penalty trial. But a death sentence likely increases the number, and cost, of follow-up appeals.

When was the last time Massachusetts held an execution?

It was 1947, following a murder case involving two mobsters. In fact, executions in Massachusetts history are so rare that one of every 13 executed people was actually charged with witchcraft (most, but not all, from the Salem witch trials).

What does this mean for Tsarnaev?

It’s possible that Tsarnaev really is a special case, and that the horrific — and very public — nature of his acts will limit his appeals and lead to a quicker execution. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001, just four years after his trial.

Yet, there are also reasons to think the execution won’t be swift in coming. Recently, there have been a range of new challenges to the whole system of capital punishment.

Advocacy groups, armed with modern forensic tools, have helped to exonerate innocent people who had been otherwise condemned to death.

Also, there are growing questions about the lethal drugs that states use for their executions, driven in part by a series of high-profile botched executions last year.

What would Tsarnaev’s execution be like?

Tsarnaev may someday face execution. But it won’t be in Massachusetts. He’ll likely be put to death in Terre Haute, Ind., where the three other recent federal executions took place.

And the method? Lethal injection is the controversial norm for now, but given that any execution is still years away — should it happen at all — the country may have adopted a new method by then.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz