It was no surprise that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted on all 30 counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing trial yesterday; in their opening statement his attorneys conceded his guilt in the April 2013 horror at the finish line. Now the penalty phase—deliberations which will determine whether Tsarnaev, 19 at the time of his crimes, will face execution or life behind bars—will begin as early as next week. Massachusetts bars the use of capital punishment, but Tsarnaev has been tried in a federal court. Seventeen of the crimes he has been convicted of—which include the 2013 Marathon bomb attacks themselves that claimed three lives, wounding 260 others, and the murder of a police officer days later in a chaotic attempt to escape the city—are eligible for capital punishment.
His jury will begin hearing testimony aimed at deciding Tsarnaev’s fate next week, but Massachusetts Catholic bishops have already indicated where they stand on the matter. “The Church has taught that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are ‘rare, if not practically nonexistent.’ The Church’s teaching is further developing in recognition of the inherent dignity of all life as a gift from God,” the state’s bishops, including Boston’s Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, OFM, Cap., wrote in a statement released on April 6.
The statement continues: “The defendant in this case has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm. Because of this, we…believe that society can do better than the death penalty. As the Bishops of the United States said in their 2005 statement A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, ‘no matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.’ We believe these words remain true today in the face of this most terrible crime.”
The Massachusetts bishops' rejection of the use of capital punishment follows in a recent line of public statements from Catholic global and national leaders moving the church farther from the notion that the death penalty is ever an appropriate punishment in a free society.
On March 20 Pope Francis bluntly denounced capital punishment as "unacceptable" regardless of the seriousness of the crime of the condemned.
Pope Francis had met that day with a delegation from the International Commission Against the Death Penalty and issued a letter urging the worldwide abolition of capital punishment. He called capital punishment "cruel, inhumane and degrading,” adding, “as is the anxiety that precedes the moment of execution and the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment, a 'torture' which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity.”
Noting that “human justice is imperfect," Pope Francis said the death penalty "does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.” In a modern "state of law,” he added, “the death penalty represents a failure” because it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice.
In a statement released on March 31, 400 Catholic and other Christian leaders denounced the use of capital punishment in the United States. “Torture and execution is always a profound evil, made even more abhorrent when sanctioned by the government in the name of justice when other means of protecting society are available," the statement read. "All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable.”
The statement—coordinated by the group Faith in Public Life and signed by three retired Catholic bishops, death penalty abolition advocate Sister Helen Prejean, and another dozen or so women religious, hundreds of clergy and academics as well as other Christian leaders, urged governors, prosecutors, judges and "anyone entrusted with power to do all that they can to end a practice that diminishes our humanity and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration.”
On March 5, a rare joint editorial by four national Catholic publications—including America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor—called for "our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all.”
The ghoulish return of firing squads in Utah as an acceptable form of state-administered justice was quickly condemned by the states Catholic bishop. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert reinstated execution by firing squad for those convicted of capital crimes on March 25. Utah’s lawmakers argued they needed a backup method of capital punishment if drugs used in lethal injection were not available. (There is a critical shortage of lethal drugs for executions and their use in carrying out the death penalty has become more controversial after recent botched executions.)
But by resurrecting firing squads in Utah, "it seems as if our government leaders have substituted state legislation for the law of God," said Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester. “[The legislators] argue that, because executions are lawful, they are then moral. This is not so. No human law can trump God's law," Bishop Wester said in a March 24 statement. "Taking a human life is wrong; a slap in the face of hope and a blasphemous attempt to assume divine attributes that we humble human beings do not have.”
Bishop Wester argued, “The real issue here is the death penalty itself" because "only God can give and take life.
"By taking a life, in whatever form the death penalty is carried out, the state is usurping the role of God. Execution does violence to God's time, eliminating the opportunity for God's redemptive and forgiving grace to work in the life of a prisoner.” Utah is now the only state that has the firing squad as a method of execution.
It has been almost 70 years since the last execution in Massachusetts, and 18 years since its state legislature was one vote away from restoring the death penalty after public outcry over the murder of a 10-year-old Cambridge boy. Though 55 percent of Americans, according to a 2013 Pew study, say they support the death penalty—including 59 percent of white Catholics—that's a sharp decline from a high of 78 percent who supported it in 1996.
Across the United States enthusiasm for the use of the death penalty has diminished as “humane” methods of execution persist in misfiring and miscarriages of justice accumulate. If the members of the Tsarnaev jury conclude they cannot apply the death penalty—even in this heinous crime—it could be another signal that this peculiar criminal justice institution in the United States may be reaching a historic end.