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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  • Jay Leonard

    This is a FEDERAL case,If Massachusetts does have the balls then move him to a state that does….they did for Timothy McVeigh

    • dust truck

      the point is that this is FEDERAL jurisdiction which means Massachusetts can’t do anything even if they wanted to.

      • Jay Leonard


  • David

    When we are wronged, we can be moved to seek vengeance over justice. I know I would if my family were harmed. That is precisely why we make laws proactively, to protect ourselves from our own reactions in the heat of the moment.

    I get that it’s a good move in the chess game to have the death penalty on the table and then trade it away for a guilty plea, saving much time and effort. But it’s against the law of the land, and shameful to violate the laws of Massachusetts in seeking justice for Massachusetts.

    • dust truck

      Who said anything about vengeance? As a matter of preventing harm to society we must remove the convicted from society in the cheapest manner possible. That may be execution or life in prison, depending on the life expectancy of the convict and the cost of appeals.

  • Lawrence

    Well, seems that this kid was on some sort of religious jihad whose members usually are “proud” to die for their (sick) cause.

    That being said, why doesn’t he just admit to the crime and embrace the death penalty?

  • stephenreal

    Dzhokhar Tsarnaev does not deserve the right
    to have any “end of life” privileges that should be specifically reserved for the sick and dying only and not for homicidal maniacs.

    Wasn’t there enough murder that day? So why go down the road of the stupid just like this dill-weed and his brother? Why would Boston want to have a Satanic human sacrifice?What are we hillbillies?

    I know you people like human sacrifices but maybe we had enough murder to worship on for one day

  • Andrew Page


  • ThirdWayForward

    Tsarnaev richly deserves the death penalty. The principle of justice operant here is not deterrence, but reciprocity. Those who deliberately maim and kill innocent people should be subjected to some punishment that is commensurate with the pain and loss of life that they perpetrated.

    This is the Old Testament precept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, which is actually a middle ground between punishment that far exceeds the crime (such as many of our victimless crime laws) and complete forgiveness (such as many of our corporate crime laws).

    We have no sympathy for Tsarnaev whatsoever.

    • Lawrence

      I agree with everything you say, except this country cannot base laws on your or anyone’s religious beliefs.

      • ThirdWayForward

        These opinions are not in any way grounded in religious beliefs. I just cited the Old Testament as an example of reciprocity as a principle of justice, not as a source of moral authority. Reciprocity (tit-for-tat) is also the basis for the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself”, which can be found in most religions and non-deistic ethical systems.

        So, I think a death sentence would be completely appropriate for Tsarnaev, assuming he is in fact guilty, which seems at this point about as certain as anything else in this world.

        However, I think one should also have serious reservations about our ability as a society to apply such sentences fairly and wisely. It would need to applied only in cases where actual victims are involved and not in nebulous circumstances where some vague collective threat is imagined (as in the Edward Snowden case, where US Atty. General Eric Holder has been trying to get Snowden to surrender by making assurances that he would neither be tortured nor face a death sentence).

        I’m just not sure that I trust the State to always do the right thing, especially in times of war and social upheaval, when there is a temptation by some to use the death penalty to suppress political dissent and crush the opposition (one thinks of the Terror in the French Revolution as a prime example; history is littered with countless others).

        So, my gut wants this animal to be put to death in the most painful way possible (equalling the pain of his victims), but my head tells me that this is probably not a good road for us to follow in the long run. I am not convinced that these divergent reactions can be reconciled in any rational way, but still I think we have to resist being corrupted by our anger at these vicious sociopaths.

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