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Tsarnaev Death Penalty Decision Causes Divide

BOSTON — Reaction was swift and divided Thursday to news that the U.S. Justice Department will seek the death penalty in the case against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Massachusetts bans the death penalty, but since the case is federal, Tsarnaev could be punished by death if found guilty. That split is part of what’s causing a rift in public opinion.

When two bombs exploded near the marathon finish line on April 15, former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis led the city’s response. So his reaction to the Justice Department’s decision is tinged with emotion.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, prior to his capture (Sean Murphy/Massachusetts State Police/AP)

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, prior to his capture (Sean Murphy/Massachusetts State Police/AP)

Davis says he’s not a staunch supporter of the death penalty but “every once in a while you come across a case where I think that the circumstances are so unique that it needs to be considered. This is such a case.”

For Davis, this case is an exception. That message is reinforced by the former special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, Rick DesLauriers.

“Due to the magnitude of the crimes, the seriousness of the crimes, the death penalty should be given as an option to the jury to consider,” he said. “I totally support the decision.”

But outside the law enforcement circle Thursday, opinion was murkier.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh tapdanced around the issue.

“As you all know, as a state representative, I voted against the death penalty. If I were asked to vote on that today, I would vote the same way,” he said. “But this is not my vote to cast or my decision to make.”

Instead, Walsh shifted gears.

“Attorney General [Eric] Holder has applied the law in this case,” he said. “I support the process that has brought him to this decision.”

As for Gov. Deval Patrick, he avoided reporters at an afternoon event and issued a statement in which he did not say if he supports the decision. Instead, he wrote, “One way or another, based on the evidence, Tsarnaev will die in prison.”

The Justice Department says Tsarnaev betrayed the United States, specifically targeted an iconic event that draws massive crowds, and has shown no remorse. Seventeen of the 30 federal charges against Tsarnaev carry the possibility of the death penalty, so it’s not a surprise the government is seeking that option.

But for some people, it is a disappointment. Former federal Judge Nancy Gertner says a majority of Bostonians oppose capital punishment.

“Even in this horrendous crime, our citizens believe that the death penalty was inappropriate,” she said, “and the notion that you should engraft the federal death penalty on this act is just sublimely troubling.”

Gertner also worries it will be more difficult to find a jury because people morally opposed to the death penalty would automatically be disqualified.

In Watertown, the scene of a manhunt to capture Tsarnaev, some say the death penalty is fair. But others, such as Greg Boerman, aren’t so sure.

“I feel like he was majorly influenced by his older brother,” he said. “Maybe the death penalty is a little bit harsh. I think it’s almost an easy way out. I believe he should kind of pay for the rest of his life.”

Massachusetts banned the death penalty in 1984. So for Mahmood Abu-Rubieh, Holder’s decision to seek it comes down to political preference. Abu-Rubieh went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School with Tsarnaev, and knew him from the wrestling team.

Abu-Rubieh says the Justice Department’s move isn’t surprising, and while he feels an inkling of sympathy for Tsarnaev, “I also have faith in the judicial system in that they’re going to dole out what’s an appropriate punishment for such a crime.”

But still, he adds, one of the hardest things is coming to grips with the fact that someone he knew, someone so seemingly normal, someone who used to swing by the high school to help coach younger wrestlers, could have committed such horrible crimes.

Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz contributed reporting from Watertown.

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