Life or Death

Last week, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty on 30 counts related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The penalty phase of the trial begins today and may last for another four weeks. But the speculation has already begun: will Tsarnaev get the death penalty or life in jail?

To be honest, the death penalty seems unlikely.

I was surprised it was even an option since the State of Massachusetts found the practice unconstitutional in 1984.

Interesting, the reason given by the state supreme court at that time was that the death penalty “unfairly punishes defendants who choose to go to trial, since the death penalty could only be used after a guilty verdict at trial and not after a guilty plea.”

But, regardless of state policy, the Marathon bombing is a federal trial – making capital punishment an option.

In Boston, it’s not a popular option, though. A recent WBUR poll found that “only 31 percent of Boston area residents said they support the death penalty for Tsarnaev.”

Bill and Denise Richard, parents of the bombing’s youngest victim penned a compelling op-ed for the Boston Globe: “to end the anguish, drop the death penalty,” they wrote.

And they are not alone in speaking out in opposition to the death penalty. Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, who both lost limbs in the blast, issued a joint statement on the topic, writing, “If there is anyone who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant. However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.”

So no, death is not popular.

And given that the jury needs to be unanimous in its call for the death penalty, that result seems unlikely.

But is that enough?

Should those of us who fancy ourselves New England liberals, who pride ourselves on our compassion and informed rationality – should we breath a sigh of relief if the Tsarnaev verdict comes back: LIFE IN PRISON.

Is that enough to calm our restless spirits? To convince ourselves that while Tsarnaev may be a monster, we are not monster enough to kill him.

Life in prison. A just sentence for a 21-year-old kid who killed four people and wounded dozens of others.

Or is it?

160,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States, including about 50,000 who have no possibility for parole.

The Other Death Penalty Project argues that “a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a death sentence. Worse, it is a long, slow, dissipating death sentence without any of the legal or administrative safeguards rightly awarded to those condemned to the traditional forms of execution.”

The ACLU of Northern California states that “life in prison without the possibility of parole is swift, severe, and certain punishment.”

Mind you, that’s an argument for why life sentences should replace the death penalty. The death penalty is outdated – even barbaric by some standards. Life without the possibility of parole is cleaner, neater.

A death sentence comes with “years of mandatory appeals that often result in reversal” while life sentences “receive no special consideration on appeal, which limits the possibility they will be reduced or reversed.”

And best, yet, a life sentence allows us to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done: our judgement was harsh but humane.

Our prisoner will get no appeals while he lives in extreme isolation – cramped in a 7 x 9 cell and fed through a slot in the solid steel door.

But at least he will have his life. We are progressive after all.

There is something wrong with this dynamic.

I’m not sure what to recommend in the Tsarnaev trial – whether life or death is ultimately a worse fate.

But more broadly we need to rethink our options. We need to recognize the deep, systemic failures of our prison system and identify new strategies and options for reparation and justice. If we want to be harsh, we can be harsh, but let’s be honest about what we are and what we want from our punishments.

After all, if we’re quibbling over whether someone should die slowly or die quickly – we’re hardly arguing about anything at all.

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  1. Pingback: The “Humanitarianism” of Living in Prison Until Death | anotherpanacea

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