Why Death for Tsarnaev?

My first reaction to the Friday morning headlines that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been condemned to death by the Boston jury for his role in bombing the Boston Marathon was anger — an emotion I more or less put on hold many years ago and which very rarely surfaces. The second was sadness.

Anger was directed not at the jurors but at former Attorney General Eric Holder who had decided that this was a federal case and that the boy should die. Holder had had a reputation as an opponent to the death penalty, and President Obama had asked him for a report on the death penalty before leaving office. National opposition to the death penalty has been slowly rising throughout the country, largely in response to botched executions, the failure of various drugs to execute the prisoner in a civilized, swift and painless manner. Holder’s researchers had also reported that federal prosecutors more often recommended the death penalty for minorities. But it seems the humanitarian reasons for the death penalty were pushed aside for political reasons—to demonstrate that civilian courts can be just as tough as military courts, or to put it another way, to prove that the Obama administration is tough on terrorism.

Advertisement

But since when is having to prove one is tough evidence of either toughness or courage or maturity? Although the Boston Globe survey found that only 15 percent of Bostonians and 19 percent statewide favored the death penalty for Tsarnaev, 60 percent of Americans wanted to execute. Eighty-eight percent of all executions are carried out by China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the United States, which executes more persons than any other liberal democracy. Are we proud that we can be as brutal as China? What was Holder thinking? He certainly knew that a federal prison would remove Tsarnaev as a threat, but he went with that majority of Americans and the tabloids who wanted blood.

My sadness was for the jurors who felt the same way. Bill and Denise Richard, the couple whose 8-year-old son was killed by one of the bombs, made a public plea to the government to put aside the death penalty and imprison Tsarnaev instead. Sister Helen Prejean’s testimony based on her conversation with the prisoner did not sway. The jury selection process had been limited to death penalty supporters; but it was presumed that they would be open to the proposition that this particular 19-year-old boy need not die for justice to be done. Apparently they did not consider that the accused’s motives for killing Americans is in response to our practice of killing our enemies in the Middle East, including thousands of innocent bystanders, with bombs and drones.

The most expressed justification for the execution is that seeing the offender die brings peace and comfort to the families of the victims. I can understand why one would say that, but I doubt that it’s true. In other words, the feeling of revenge is not a virtue. The revenge theme is common in novels and films, but even there the characters find themselves deluded and diminished by their clinging to an obsession. Years ago, when I testified in a hearing in New Jersey against the death penalty, I met families of victims who had replaced the revenge appetite with forgiveness and compassion and found true peace.

This story is not over. The judicial process may take years. I pray that somewhere along the way, preferably soon, either the courts or the president will muster the courage to reduce the sentence to life in prison where even Tsarnaev might find repentance and even peace. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Frank Gibbons
3 years 5 months ago
"Apparently they did not consider that the accused’s motives for killing Americans is in response to our practice of killing our enemies in the Middle East, including thousands of innocent bystanders, with bombs and drones." What are you saying? That this is a mitigating circumstance? I am against the death penalty in all instances. But that doesn't mean that I must minimize the heinous nature of Tsarnaev's crime. And if one is unequivocally against capital punishment, as I am, one cannot not advocate for abortion rights.
William Atkinson
3 years 4 months ago
The key in this case is it would of been much more of a punishment to send him to life in prison, the country has spent about a billion and half to go to trial and convict, now they will spend about 4 billion to re-trial and the final appeals before they can actually put him to death. (that amount of money could feed 1/4 the worlds poor population for about a year) and all this time he would of suffered ten times over in prison and probably repented to his creator. The true love of a Christian in this horrific struggle is that all involved, good, bad, and evil see their happiness with their creator. The act of two evils (Boston Bombing and killings, and the death of the persons responsible) does not make a good. You speak of abortion in this case, it's kind of like bagging apples and oranges in the same container; two different issues. Abortion wouldn't be a issue if everyone, governments included could agree on when life begins and when life ends (also another issue with so many thousands if not millions buried alive in history).
Frank Gibbons
3 years 4 months ago
I said that "I am against the death penalty in all instances" and that I was "unequivocally against the death penalty." So there's no need to offer a polemic to me about why the death penalty should not be applied in this case. Not only am I against the death penalty, but I'm against torture (including water boarding), euthanasia, human trafficking and abortion. Abortion and the death penalty, as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin rightly stated, are both life issues and are inextricably bound together. If one decries capital punishment and supports abortion rights, then he is ethically and logically inconsistent. Such a person is simply adhering to an ideological or political position. If you are for life and human dignity then right reason, science and ethics demands a consistent approach to life issues -- including abortion.
Robert Lewis
3 years 4 months ago
However, if one takes the position of three popes, as I do, that use of the death penalty is a "PRUDENTIAL matter," in which, in almost all cases, there is almost no justification for its use, it IS possible to say the same thing about abortion--that it may be used, say, to save the life of the mother, or when it is obvious that a fetus, if brought to term as a child, will die in horrendous pain. As I have written, on another thread at this website, the "prudential decision" to spare Dzokhar Tsarnaev should have been made based on the LEVEL of his culpability, as compared with his brother's, and also on the basis of the government's responsibility to reveal to the survivors of the victims, as well as to the general public, all of the evidence regarding the planning of the crime, as well as the collusion with it, of either co-conspirators, or elements of law enforcement that may have known full well that it was about to happen.
Frank Gibbons
3 years 4 months ago
Robert Lewis, The last three popes did not say that abortion was a "a prudential matter." Please do not use CAPs -- I understand what you mean by the words "prudential", "is" and "level."
Robert Lewis
3 years 4 months ago
I like CAPS, and I'll use them whenever I wish, for emphasis.
Frank Gibbons
3 years 4 months ago
Use them all you want, but not when you're speaking directly to me.
Robert Lewis
3 years 4 months ago
So you do not believe that abortion may be used to save the life of a mother? And you do not believe that any of the three popes would have allowed that? Are you a sedevaticanist or something?
Paul Ferris
3 years 4 months ago
a billion and a half...4 billion to retry...where did those numbers come from ?? They seem widely inflated. Also are we going to start determining justice by cost benefit analysis ?
Paul Ferris
3 years 4 months ago
In the past, being Catholic was entirely consistent with favoring the death penalty but that has changed. My own reason for being against it is, though by the grace of God I have not directly murdered anyone, I still am a sinner in need of God's infinite mercy. I cannot expect mercy if I deny it to others. God is the ultimate judge and jury and we should leave the final decision to the infinite Wisdom of the Trinity. I know that is not the secular approach but as the article points out, even a substantial majority of citizens are against the death penalty. And as I have revealed in these comments, I did lose a beloved sister to murder/suicide. Most people are killed by someone they know.
William Atkinson
3 years 4 months ago
Paul: You can't leave anything and everything to God, that old saying "God helps those who help themselves" is based on the Golden Rule (not the one that says who has the gold rules, but Love God as You love YOURSELF and your Neighbors" We, yes you and me, are Gods children and it's up to us to do his will through our will while we are entrusted with His domain.
Paul Ferris
3 years 4 months ago
William I am not saying there should be no punishment or justice in this case. Life in prison for someone in their twenties is very harsh. I am just saying that the death penalty is not a human being to make. We have seen murderers repent from their murders. Life and death and ultimate judgment should be left to God which is not saying we do nothing. I think you are off in trying to make your argument but thanks for comment.
Robert Lewis
3 years 4 months ago
I whole-heatedly agree with you. I can't understand why certain "conservatives" are against the notion of "rehabilitation," saying that panels of "experts" can't truly "know" that somebody has actually changed his mind and heart, but, at the same time, say that a jury of twelve persons CAN peer into the consciousness of another human being and "know" that he or she is irretrievably lost as a member of society--much less be absolutely certain that he or she did actually commit the crime, "with knowledge aforethought." Too many innocents have been executed, and too many condemned have "come to Jesus." I'm in favour of "retributive justice" all the way up to, but excluding judicial murder, which I think is atheistic and secularist worship of the State.
William Atkinson
3 years 4 months ago
All this rhetoric about the National Security Agency listening in on phone conversations, how come they did not intercept and stop, long before it happened in Boston, the Bombings. This whole event wouldn't even of happened, along with other home grown terrorist acts if the trillions spent on NSA did it's job. America new about Pearl Harbor weeks, days and hours before it happened. America new months and even were warned about 9/11 (by French Authorities) before it happened, NSA listened in and America was warned by the Russians before the Boston Bombing happened, The fault of evil is the good guys ignoring the warning signs, so homegrown terrorist, ISIS, Hitler and others take advantage of indifference to evil, even in our personal lives before it happens. When will we learn to be vigilant in-order to be safe and secure.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 4 months ago
When I was young I used to favor the death penalty, my Biblical cover, "an eye for an eye" etc. but no longer. Now as an old man I see no point in killing someone as punishment for their killing of another, ending up with two, not one killings. People including murderers like all sinners, grave or otherwise, repent, some becoming quite holy. Like the young man who killed the young girl, St. Maria Goretti in a crime of sexual passion as she successfully resisted, who after serving a long prison sentence, lived a penitential life in a Capuchin monastery as a domestic and died a holy man. Everyone deserves (needs) a second chance and maybe another and another and another! Also didn't God turn a murderer, Moses, into an icon of holiness and how about David in lust getting the husband of the woman he lusted for killed and who was also adulterous, grave sin hot condoned but forgiven through repentance? Others too, I' sure.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 4 months ago
Your passion in this writing, Fr. Schroth, is consoling to me. Thank you.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 4 months ago
Fr. Schroth - I don't quite understand your anger, even though I know you are against the death penalty and I generally agree a life sentence of hard work would have been much more preferable. I believe only 3 (all horrific murders) have been executed since 1976 in the federal system. Meanwhile, millions are aborted, thousand are murdered & about 80,000 women are raped each year, including the horrific killing of the Savopoulos family this weekend. Also, ISIS is killing thousands of people every day and the US Government and the Western World does little. Yet, you say none of that made you angry - just this case?
Tim O'Leary
3 years 4 months ago
Another point. Shouldn't everyone who is against the death penalty be even more outraged when someone is condemned to death when obviously innocent of any real crime, such as this http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/05/26/2-pastors-face-death-in-sudan-face-death-over-christian-faith/?intcmp=latestnews. To put US capital punishment into perspective, according to Amnesty International Statistics, the US is responsible for about 1% of world judicial executions, whereas UN-recognized Islamic regimes account for 22% and China accounts for 76%. These percentages do not include the numerous “judicial” executions of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Taliban and North Korea.
Robert Lewis
3 years 4 months ago
Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if Eric Holder didn't OK the prosecution for the death penalty BECAUSE he is philosophically opposed to that penalty. He has, in fact, handed us death penalty opponents a classic case of its inappropriateness, based on the wrong venue for the trial, the youthful age of the defendant, and, with the greatest and most important relevance, the fact that the whole case of the Tsarnaev brothers' involvement with government agents makes us suspect that the hasty prosecution, the incomplete investigation, and the inappropriate sentencing is designed to "cover up" their incompetence and blundering. I predict that tens of millions of dollars in donations will be spent on the appeals and that they will turn into a major attack on the death penalty itself. I myself will contribute to such funding.

Advertisement

The latest from america

The tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and Nancy Pelosi in Manhattan was like a documentary about a once-popular rock band. (Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Speaking in a deep blue stronghold, the Democratic leader of the House calls for “civility” and cautiously hopes that she will again wield the speaker’s gavel in January.
Brandon SanchezOctober 16, 2018
The lecture provoked no hostile reaction from the students who heard it. But a media firestorm erupted.
John J. ConleyOctober 16, 2018
Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2018
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium, their act drew widespread criticism. Now Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike.
Michael McKinleyOctober 16, 2018