In the raw days after the Marathon bombing in April, Mayor Tom Menino spoke for many Bostonians when he raised the prospect of executing those who were responsible. Though normally a death penalty opponent, Menino said that the barbarity of the attackers, who killed four people and maimed dozens, might sway him.
Now, as surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces trial, that question looms for federal prosecutors, who are in the midst of a lengthy process to decide by Oct. 31 whether to seek the 19-year-old’s death by lethal injection. It’s certainly understandable why many friends, family, and supporters of the victims hope prosecutors will seek the ultimate vengeance against the man they believe masterminded the bombing along with his older brother, Tamerlan. Still, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should decide against it.
The death penalty is a deeply contentious issue, and individual viewpoints often spring from strongly held ethical and religious beliefs. To many, executions are never justified. Yet even ardent supporters of capital punishment should recognize that in this case, it would be a mistake for Holder to pursue the death penalty against Tsarnaev.
In addition to the extra cost of capital prosecutions — cases can exceed $10 million — death penalty cases drag on for years, through numerous appeals. Such lengthy proceedings would ensure that the Marathon bombing case lingers in the spotlight, compounding the sense of injury to victims. Many people would feel compelled to defend Tsarnaev on the basis of his youth, lack of past offenses, and being under the influence of his older brother — all factors that would mitigate against a death sentence. Years of proceedings, and their potential culmination in a death sentence, would also give Tsarnaev what he and his brother apparently sought: publicity and notoriety. Much better to let Tsarnaev slip into obscurity in a federal prison cell, and stay there.
It’s possible that prosecutors are keeping the death penalty on the table primarily to use as leverage against Tsarnaev, hoping that he will agree to plead guilty, skip a trial, and accept life imprisonment in order to save his life. Such a strategy raises worries about fairness under any circumstances, since it puts enormous pressure on defendants to give up their right to a trial. In this case, it’s also unnecessary. The evidence against Tsarnaev is overwhelming, and prosecutors should have nothing to fear from bringing the case to trial.
Beyond the details of this particular case, of course, lies the deeper question of whether the death penalty itself is ever right. There is no national consensus on the death penalty, and Holder needs to be sensitive to differences of public opinion. The bombing was a terrorist act aimed at this Commonwealth, where the death penalty has been repeatedly debated and repeatedly rejected. A recent Globe poll found that Boston residents oppose the death penalty for Tsarnaev by a solid margin. Of course, the attorney general should be under no legal obligation to consider the temper of the city. But perhaps it will give him the cover to make the right call. If Massachusetts can reject the death penalty, even after the most awful crimes, so can Holder.