by Sophie Trist
On April 15, 2013, two bombs went off near the finish line of the 117th annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding and disabling more than two hundred others. Several days later, one of the terrorists responsible, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a firefight with law enforcement. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was wounded and captured alive. During his interrogation, the younger Tsarnaev stated that the bombings were carried out as retributions for the U.S.’s killing of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tsarnaev was convicted of more than thirty charges and sentenced to death. Tsarnaev appealed his convictions on the grounds that the trial should have been held somewhere besides Boston, a city still reeling and traumatized from the attack. The First Circuit court agreed, and on July 31, 2020, a three-judge panel vacated Tsarnaev’s death sentence because the original judge did not pay proper attention to bias during the jury selection process and did not ask prospective jurors what they knew or believed about the bombing. The U.S. government appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the appeal in March of 2021. Arguments are set for this month. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will spend the rest of his life in prison, regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court case. It remains to be seen whether he will live the rest of his natural life behind bars or be strapped into a chair and injected with a dubious cocktail of lethal drugs.
On the campaign trail, President Biden pledged to pass legislation abolishing capital punishment at the federal level. Yet he has remained completely silent on executions since taking office. His inaction on the death penalty adds to confusion as some states explore other ghastly execution methods such as gas chambers and firing squads, while abolition gains ground in other states. Despite the president’s promises and the Attorney General halting federal executions for the foreseeable future, the current administration is still seeking the death penalty in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case, among others.
I have been staunchly and universally opposed to capital punishment for nearly eight years now. Yet I must admit that cases like those of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof put my convictions to the test. These are not innocent people being devoured by a brutal and dehumanizing system. Though Tsarnaev apologized to the bombing victims after his conviction, there is little evidence that he has had a serious change of heart. However, even in these difficult cases, the death penalty is not the answer. By killing a helpless prisoner, by exacting retribution instead of justice, we become what we hate.
We are giving in to the same mentality of dehumanization that gave rise to atrocities like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Charleston church shooting when we support capital punishment. Taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life will not bring back the three people he killed, nor will it erase the physical or mental trauma of the survivors. Aggressive violence does nothing to bring closure or heal survivors and their communities. In the motive behind Tsarnaev’s crime—to avenge civilians killed in the Middle East—we see the sad, brutal, cyclical nature of violence. Death can only beget death, and only mercy can break that cycle. By its very nature, mercy is not something we earn, but something that is given even to the undeserving, because only love can drive out hate, and only light can drive out darkness. We can acknowledge the horror of terrible crimes without stooping to such horror ourselves. Upholding a consistent life ethic means believing in the value of every single human life, even lives that are not easy to advocate for.
Capital punishment has no place in a society with hope and justice as its core values. That is why I hope that the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court’s decision to allow Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to spend the rest of his life in prison. Better yet, President Biden’s administration should live up to the promise he made and stop seeking death sentences in all federal cases. Killing can never be justice, and it’s time our federal government started walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.