Nobody can ignore voices like Liz Norden’s. After two of her sons each lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, the Stoneham resident urged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. That’s just what the federal government did on Thursday, when, after months of deliberation, Attorney General Eric Holder authorized prosecutors to pursue a capital case against the 20-year-old Tsarnaev. He is accused of killing four and wounding dozens along with his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police shortly after the April 15 attack.
The attorney general faced an excruciating call, and the Justice Department should be applauded for seeking the input of victims and their families before announcing its decision. Still, a life prison term would have been the proper punishment to seek. A death-penalty prosecution instead raises the likelihood that Tsarnaev’s trial will drag on much longer, keeping the city’s wounds raw, and that he’ll eventually get the martyrdom he apparently sought. It also ignores the consistent view of the Commonwealth, which has repeatedly rejected capital punishment, and of Boston, where polls show residents strongly opposed to putting Tsarnaev to death.
Those voices matter, too, and Holder should have listened to them. The Tsarnaev brothers targeted this community, attempting to sow fear. Instead, the city responded with a generous spirit, aiding victims and largely eschewing the kind of angry backlash against Muslims that many had feared. Boston has much to be proud of in its tempered response to the bombing, but the federal government’s actions aren’t showing the same level of forbearance. Indeed, it would be disappointing if the uplifting story of Boston’s response and recovery ended on the divisive note of a death-penalty prosecution.
Of course, the only villain in this case is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Holder would certainly have faced criticism no matter what choice he made, and death penalty supporters like Norden had every right to press their point of view. But Thursday’s decision is regrettable, and pushes the day that Boston can close the book on the Marathon bombing deeper into the future.