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Kevin Cullen

Listen to Bill and Denise Richard, and give him life in prison

Denise (left) and Bill Richard are choosing life over death, writes Kevin Cullen.
Denise (left) and Bill Richard are choosing life over death, writes Kevin Cullen.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

So, how’d you like to be Carmen Ortiz, the US attorney?

Your boss, the attorney general, says it’s your duty to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Your moral compasses, Bill and Denise Richard, say end the trial now, and let him live.

What do you do?

Life or death? What do you do?

Bill Richard faced the same dilemma in the moments after the bomb that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set down in back of the Richard family exploded outside the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street on Patriots Day in 2013. His 8-year-old son Martin was lying on the sidewalk. Denise, one of her eyes blinded by shrapnel, was kneeling over Martin.

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Bill Richard looked at Martin and knew. A father knows his son. In that moment, he had to make a decision: stay with Martin, or save his daughter Jane. His other son, Henry, had pointed Jane out in the chaotic moments after the explosion. Jane had tried to stand up but fell over because the lower part of her leg was gone.

“When I saw Martin,” Bill Richard testified in federal court last month, “I knew he wasn’t going to make it.”

Some of the jurors were crying at this point, but Bill Richard kept answering the questions of Nadine Pellegrini, the prosecutor.

“I saw my son alive, barely, for the last time,” he said. “I saw a little boy who had been severely damaged by an explosion, and I just knew, from what I saw, there was no chance.”

He knew he had lost Martin. There was no way he was going to lose Jane, too. And so Bill Richard ran toward an ambulance. He chose life over death.

In their extraordinary statement to the Globe last week, Bill Richard and his wife are making the same choice. They are choosing life over death.

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They are showing the same dignity, the same strength, they have shown from the moment fate and a pair of disaffected brothers from a dysfunctional family took so much from them.

What is most extraordinary about Bill and Denise Richard’s statement is how utterly realistic it is. Theirs are not the words of ideologues, but of parents who suffered a loss that is inconceivable, inexplicable.

“We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed,” they 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.

“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful days of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”

The Richards made it clear they were speaking only for themselves, and they respect victims and survivors who think otherwise. But how, at this point, does the Justice Department seriously pursue the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when it knows that is against the express wishes of a family that lost so much that day?

How will jurors feel if they sentence Tsarnaev to death and later learn it was not what the Richards wanted?

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I have said this before and I’ll say it again: there should not be a hierarchy of victims, but there is an ideal and there is the real world. In the real world, no family suffered at the hands of the Tsarnaev brothers more than the Richards, and so what they think matters, a lot.

It also matters that at least one of the sisters of Sean Collier, the MIT police officer murdered by the Tsarnaevs, thinks the same as the Richards.

There will never be a consensus among victims and survivors about what constitutes the appropriate punishment for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But what Bill and Denise Richard offer is deeper than that. It’s about choosing life over death, about choosing light over darkness, about guaranteeing that the legacy of the Boston Marathon bombings, that horrible week, has absolutely nothing to do with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his loser brother.

“For us,” the Richards said, “the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours.”

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is sentenced to death, he will be in our consciousness for untold years, as the appeals play out.

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If he is sentenced to life in prison, he will disappear in the hole that is the federal super-max prison in Colorado.

That is the choice: life or death, darkness or light.

Personally, I would like to forget Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as soon as possible. I’d prefer to remember people like Rob Wheeler, the college kid who had just finished the race and peeled the sweaty shirt off his back to tie off the gushing leg of Ron Brassard, saving his life.

I’d prefer to remember Bennie Upton and the firefighters from Engine 7 who ran toward the explosions, even as they assumed there would be more. I’d prefer to remember police officers like Tommy Barrett who ran to the wounded without regard for their own safety.

I’d prefer to remember those Watertown cops — Joe Reynolds, John MacLellan, Jeff Pugliese and Miguel Colon — who put an end to Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

I’d prefer to remember the smile and the determination and the utter beauty of a nurse named Jess Kensky, who lost both her legs and stands taller than the brothers who tried to kill her ever could.

The Richards have done Carmen Ortiz a favor. Let’s forget Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and remember the people who really matter.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.