Today, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.
I honestly didn’t see this coming.
The death penalty is unconstitutional and highly unpopular in Massachusetts. Victims and their family members have spoken out, asking that Tsarnaev be given life instead. And one juror’s vote against the death penalty is all it would have taken for the sentence to have come back as life in prison.
But Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death.
In the end it is perhaps a greater mercy.
Despite the dreary specter raised by “death” – I imagine a ghastly figure quietly welcomed to suck away Tsarnaev’s cold soul as the the solemn sentence is proclaimed – our system provides numerous protections to safeguard those facing this most monstrous fate.
Safeguards which those only suffering life in a dank, dreary hole don’t enjoy.
Tsarnaev’s case will automatically be appealed.
Lifers get no such privilege.
So perhaps death is a greater mercy.
Had I been a juror in the case, I can’t say what I would have done. Life or death? Death or life?
When you can’t tell which is the greater punishment it is hard to choose.
And this is not all about Tsarnaev. Imagine any trial, any defendant, any case where the crime is great enough to come down to the question: life or death?
Death or life?
When you can’t tell which is the greater punishment, there is something substantially wrong.
How can we choose, for Tsarnaev, for anyone – how can we possibly choose? Life or death. Death or life.
We cannot. Not in good conscious. We cannot know what sentence is right or just when we cannot even tell which sentence is harsh and which sentence is mercy.
We must step back, we must reevaluate the whole system. We must fix this institution which takes the lives and deaths of so many of our fellow citizens.
We can discuss what we hope to accomplish – what outcomes we hope for from punishment or from rehabilitation. We can discuss what is good and what is right, and we can seek to find the best justice we can.
But regardless of your philosophy on the way our criminal justice system ought to work, it seems clear to me that it doesn’t work –
Not when you can’t tell the difference between life and death.