Nearly a year after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the Department of Justice announced Jan. 30 it would seek the death penalty for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Of the 30 counts leveled against him, 17 qualify for a death sentence because the actions were intentional and he knew they could result in multiple deaths, according to court documents.
The trial may take months or years, but national attention will immediately buzz around the high-profile case, making every decision critical. Public sentiment against Tsarnaev is high—70 percent of Americans favor the death sentence in this case, according to a May 1 Washington Post poll—and the Department’s seeking a death penalty is understandable. But if Tsarnaev is found guilty, putting him to death would make him a martyr to other radicals and create an ethical controversy about how Americans administer justice, so the court should instead sentence him to life in prison without parole.
There are two main reasons to withhold a death sentence on Tsarnaev: lack of impartiality and the possibility of making his death seem heroic. Finding impartial jurors in this case will be nearly impossible because of mass media coverage. Other radicals may also see him as a martyr to his cause, potentially encouraging them to execute anarchistic crimes.
Tsarnaev is being tried in federal court, which has not executed a convict since 2003, according to the Department of Justice. In 2001, the federal courts sentenced Timothy McVeigh to death after he was convicted of bombing an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people. Controversy surrounded his execution because he saw the death penalty as a crowning achievement, according to a 2001 essay written by Paul Finkelman, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law.
In this case, with so much national controversy about the questionable humanity of the death penalty, the U.S. should not create both an ethical controversy and a role model for other anarchists. Life in prison may not be the conclusive punishment the Department of Justice is seeking, but it is far greater retribution than simply ending Tsarnaev’s life. Locking him up to contemplate his acts while depriving him of his freedom is enough.
Deciding whether a criminal should live or die is a reflection of America’s social values. In March 2003, 72 percent of Americans favored a strike on Iraq in retaliation for 9/11, according to a 2008 analysis by Pew Research Center. However, that number steadily declined, falling to 33 percent by February 2008, according to the analysis. In Tsarnaev’s case, the national memory of the bombing is still recent and painful, and sentencing him to death as a form of vengeance may not be a proper punishment in retrospect.
Although the crime in question is horrifying and domestic terrorism should be strongly punished, there are too many outside influences in Tsarnaev’s trial to make a hard-and-fast decision about his punishment before he is even convicted. If the court finds him guilty, life in prison is still a harsh punishment that should not raise an ethical storm, and it will not distract from the horror of a crime, many of whose victims need to heal with time.