The jury started deliberations on the death penalty phase on Wednesday in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the now infamous Boston Bomber who was convicted of all 30 counts involved in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, including 17 eligible for the death penalty. His actions took the lives of three persons, including seven year old Martin Richard and severely injured 264 others. Some victims have undergone at least 60 surgeries due to their injuries. It’s difficult to imagine a more heinous crime deserving of the death penalty, Yet despite the heinous acts, Tsarnaev may receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The prosecutor must convince all twelve jurors to sentence Dzhokhar Tsarnaevto death on a single count. If twelve agree to death on a single count, he will receive the death penalty. And that may be more of an uphill climb than most would imagine. The defense on the other hand has only to convince one person on each of the eligible counts that he does not deserve to die. Each side argued in their respective closing arguments and offered evidence throughout the trial of their positions. The prosecution stated the reasons for the death penalty calling Tsarnaev a “terrorist”. And Tsarnaev’s lawyer, Judy Clarke asked the jury to choose life –yes, even for the Boston Bomber. The defense raised Tsarnaev’s childhood where both parents were absent from his life leaving his older brother as the one to raise him. Stating the dominant factor of his older brother was a mitigating factor to consider in giving him life in prison.
The jury is aware that at least one of the victim’s families supports life in prison and does not want to go through endless appeals and possible retrials, if he is given the death penalty. The family of eight year old Martin Richard, killed in the bombing, requests that Tsarnaev be spared the death penalty. And Judy Clarke has a track record with death penalty cases resulting in life in prison. Perhaps, the most convincing person to testify on the defense’s behalf was the last defense witness, Sister Helen Prejan, the real life nun portrayed in the movie, Dead Man Walking. Having seen her speak publicly on one occasion, she is an eloquent speaker and strong advocate against the death penalty. She testified that Tsarnaev is remorseful for his acts. To say that the death penalty is not popular in Massachusetts would be an understatement. The case of Tsarnaev is being tried in federal court where the death penalty is allowed. Massachusetts state courts abolished the death penalty in 1984. No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947.
The prosecutor showed that Tsarnaev had no remorse for his killings as he lay wounded in the boat before he was captured. There he wrote that innocent Americans had to die to be punished. And the act of violence committed by Tsarnaev and his brother were the worst acts of terrorism in the U. S. since September 11. While life in prison is hardly a paradise, one of the prosecution’s points in arguing for the death penalty is that Tsarnaev would also be able to somewhat enjoy some measure of his life in prison unlike the deceased victims. Yet, being on lockdown for 23 hours a day in a tiny cell could hardly be considered enjoyment.
If Tsarnaev is given the death penalty on one single count out of the eligible counts for the death penalty, he will be sentence to death. And then the countless appeals will start. If given death, we could be discussing his case a decade later due to appellate reviews—as he awaits on death row. If he is spared the death penalty and given life, he will spend the rest of his life in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day without the possibility of parole. That’s a slower death sentence.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She appears on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC, BET, C-Span, PBS, CCTV- America, Fox 5 (WTTG) and TV One among others, speaking on legal news and issues.