The death penalty is the only great unknown in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has admitted to the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260. It’s difficult to come up with a more vicious disregard for human life than that shown by the Tsarnaev brothers, so it’s not surprising that many consider capital punishment the only appropriate outcome, even if insufficient to qualify as an eye-for-an-eye response.
But it seems that at least as many have misgivings about deadly retribution. A poll of Boston-area residents by WBUR/MassINC Polling Group found 49 percent in favor of a lifetime prison sentence for Tsarnaev, with 38 percent supporting the death penalty. Men chose the death penalty, 48 percent vs. 38 percent, but women opted for lifetime imprisonment, 59 percent vs. 29 percent.
His attorneys have already admitted that Tsarnaev and his brother planted the bombs near the marathon finish line in 2013 and, a few days later, killed an MIT campus police officer and then engaged in a shoot-out with police in Watertown. (The brother, Tamerlan, was killed during the shoot-out; trial testimony indicated that Dzhokhar ran him over with a car in his attempt to flee.) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motives are less clear, and defense attorneys have portrayed him as an immature student (19 at the time of the bombing), who was pressured by his 26-year-old brother into committing an act of anti-American terrorism. The prosecution has pointed to Al Qaeda literature in Tsarnaev’s possession before the bombings, but this may reinforce the idea that he was easily manipulated by crude propaganda.
The weak support for the death penalty in Tsarnaev’s case may have something to do with recent studies suggesting that young adults have a kind of neurological immaturity that makes the more susceptible to peer pressure. Writing about the Tsarnaev brothers, who were raised in Kyrgyzstan and are of Chechen descent, the Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein points to research showing that “young adults are often attracted to terrorist movements through loving relationships, particularly with siblings or romantic partners who hold extreme beliefs.”
This research is linked to a larger movement against trying, and punishing, juveniles as adults. “We are the only country in the world that gives LWOP [life-without-parole sentences] to youth,” wrote the Jesuit Restorative Justice Institute’s Michael Kennedy, S.J., for America last year. “In states that still give a LWOP sentence, these children face the fact that they may never be with their families again.” Kennedy included a letter from Pope Francis, who wrote that the “plea that this form of sentencing be reviewed in the light of justice and the possibility of reform and rehabilitation moved me deeply.”
Tsarnaev may be past the point where rehabilitation could make it practical or desirable to return him to society. But it’s difficult to reject the idea, unprovable as it is, that if he had made it through a few more years without succumbing to the perverse romanticism of terrorist movements, he might have become an unremarkable, law-abiding American citizen. Tsarnaev’s immaturity complicates the desire for swift and brutal punishment, and this helps to account for the fury over a Rolling Stone magazine cover in 2013 with a photo of a “tousle-haired, thinly goateed” and decidedly boyish Tsarnaev gazing out at readers. (Several drugstore and grocery chains in the Boston area refused to distribute the magazine.)
The difficulty in explaining the behavior of young adults may also account for the subdued coverage in the U.S. of nine British medical students who have apparently traveled to Syria to work in hospitals controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS, despite the theme of “radicalized” students being relevant to the Tsarnaev trial.
In the Boston area, at least, there is weariness with the marathon bombing case, and I don’t sense that the trial is a common topic at dinner tables and in barrooms. (Eerily, the Tsarnaev trial is also competing for attention with the nearly simultaneous trial of former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez, accused of three murders.) In the poll cited above, only 23 percent of Boston-area adults said they were following the trial “very closely,” lower than the percentages following recent public transit problems, the deaths of such as the MBTA shutdown, last year’s death of a toddler under state welfare supervision and a recent rise in opiate overdose deaths.
“Instead of enacting justice in the theater we call a courtroom, this trial seems to merely be dusting off old trauma,” writes Boston journalist E.J. Graff in Vice (“The Tsarnaev Trial Is Blowing Up Boston All Over Again”), “unnecessarily reopening a wound that had only just begun to close.” She sees little discussion of the trial on social media (aside from the professional journalist) and little desire for a long debate over Tsarnaev’s sentence:
This trial, in other words, teeters on the verge of being an unnecessary and gruesome circus. According to CNN, the Justice Department refused a plea deal in which Tsarnaev would acknowledge guilt to escape the death penalty. But why? That would have upheld the rule of law. That would have been the civilized antidote to the Tsarnaevs’ explosion of mayhem and pointless rage.