Advertisement

The perplexing case of Biden, Tsarnaev and the death penalty

A group from "Veterans for Peace" picketed outside the Moakley Federal Courthouse as jurors deliberated in the penalty phase of the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Friday, May 15, 2015. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A group from "Veterans for Peace" picketed outside the Moakley Federal Courthouse as jurors deliberated in the penalty phase of the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Friday, May 15, 2015. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Two days after this year's Boston Marathon, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether to reinstate the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Department of Justice (DOJ) will argue in favor of execution, a sentence that was overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2020.

In 2013, Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan detonated two homemade bombs at the marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street, killing three spectators and wounding nearly 300 others. The bombing unleashed a four-day manhunt through the streets of Boston and its suburbs that left another victim, ­a MIT police officer, dead from gunshot wounds.

Heroic police officers exchanged bullets with Tamerlan, killing him, and eventually apprehended Dzhokhar. They did what we hope government first responders will do — protect the public against immediate and dangerous threats at their own peril. These law enforcement officers were exercising their duty in its purest form.

The DOJ is seeking to kill Dzhokhar — not in the heat of gun battle or to protect the public from a dangerous fugitive — but strictly out of vengeance and in cold blood.

In contrast, government officials now pursuing the death penalty against Tsarnaev are neither heroic nor pure. The government attorneys appearing before the Supreme Court are intent on capital punishment. The DOJ is seeking to kill Dzhokhar — not in the heat of gun battle or to protect the public from a dangerous fugitive — but strictly out of vengeance and in cold blood.

Yet, the majority of Massachusetts residents oppose the death penalty. In fact, when Tsarnaev was convicted in 2015 only 18% of Massachusetts residents believed he should be put to death. But although Tsarnaev’s actions took place in Massachusetts, the case and the sentencing are being decided by federal courts.

During President Biden’s campaign, he vowed to “eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” The example his administration is setting by pursuing death in the Tsarnaev case is, at the very least, perplexing, and more likely, duplicitous. The DOJ’s move to reinstate Tsarnaev’s death sentence also directly contradicts the moratorium on federal executions that Attorney General Merrick Garland announced this summer.

The Biden administration is preaching fairness and justice while simultaneously seeking death.

A single flower rested in a paper cup on the finish line of the Boston Marathon after a federal jury ruled that Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death for his role in the 2013 attack. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A single flower rested in a paper cup on the finish line of the Boston Marathon after a federal jury ruled that Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death for his role in the 2013 attack. (Charles Krupa/AP)

These actions are not those of a just and compassionate nation. The United States is one of the 30% of countries that practice the death penalty on its people, trailing only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt — countries we routinely condemn for human rights abuses — in the number of government-sanctioned executions in 2019.

And the same government that employs the strictest punishment possible for the accused lacks discipline in its own trial process and sentencing. People of color disproportionately receive the death penalty. While Black people comprise only 13% percent of the U.S. population, currently 40% of inmates on death row in federal prisons are Black. The percentage is similar for state prisons.

Furthermore, some of those on death row are innocent. Since 1973, 97 of the 185 people on death row who have been exonerated were BlackIn 67% of those exonerations, the erroneous convictions resulted from misconduct by a government official.

Make no mistake, the court affirmed all the most serious of Tsarnaev’s convictions, including the multiple murder charges. He still stands convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. But if the death penalty is reinstated, it could be decades before Tsarnaev is executed, and in that time it will cost taxpayers around $1.12 million more than if his sentence remained life in prison.

Boston continues to grieve the marathon bombing, but Tsarnaev’s case is in the hands of our federal government. Therefore, we need Biden to demonstrate humanity, keep his campaign promise and work to abolish the federal death penalty. But until there is the political will in Washington to achieve this, his administration must stop advocating for death in the courts and he should commute all federal capital sentences. After all, saving 46 lives is as simple as a stroke of his pen.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Karen J. Pita Loor Cognoscenti contributor
Karen J. Pita Loor is the associate dean for experiential education and a clinical professor of law at Boston University School of Law. 

More…

Advertisement

Advertisement