The death penalty is wrong – even for terrorists
The death penalty is once again in the spotlight in the United States, after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old Boston bomber, was sentenced to death last week. Tsarnaev helped plan and execute the bombings in 2013 with his older brother Tamerlan, who was later killed in a shootout with police. The bombing killed three people, including an eight-year-old boy. Some 264 people were injured, and more than a dozen people lost limbs.
There was controversy over the fact that Tsarnaev was convicted by a jury in a federal court; had he been tried in a Massachusetts court, he would have received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Bostonians generally dislike the death penalty and it has been outlawed in Massachusetts since 1984. After the sentence was handed down, a survey revealed that 61 per cent of respondents would have preferred for him to have been given a life sentence.
Even Bill and Denise Richards, the parents of the eight-year-old boy who was killed, wrote in support of Tsarnaev receiving life imprisonment over the death penalty. Understandably, the Richards family want the case to be settled and, given the lengthy appeals process that follows every death sentence, it is unlikely to be over anytime soon. Only three of the 76 people sentenced to death in federal courts since 1988 have been executed. The rest are still in the middle of the appeals process.
However, others have expressed agreement with the sentence. President Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch, who supports capital punishment, has said that, in the case of Tsarnaev, death was a ‘fitting punishment for this horrific crime’.
In the trial, Tsarnaev’s defence attempted to portray him as being subject to external influences, especially the influence of his older brother. But the jury rejected this. Only two jurors found that Tsarnaev’s ‘dysfunctional’ family played a role in turning him into a terrorist bomber. Just one juror blamed his mother’s embrace of radical Islam. And, while three jurors accepted that his brother had misled him, the majority found Tsarnaev to be morally responsible.
However, as much as the trial has reopened the question of capital punishment, it seems, sadly, that the debate will continue to play out behind courtroom doors. Instead of a substantive moral discussion about the death penalty, the technical details of Tsarnaev’s case will be pored over by lawyers for, potentially, decades, as the appeals process ensues.
The death penalty is morally wrong. Tsarnaev’s casual disregard for human life is not best punished by the state taking his life in return. It’s time the question of capital punishment was thrown out of the courtroom and into the public square.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)