Tsarnaev, the death penalty, and the sanctity of human life

Yesterday, Tsarnaev was given the death penalty in the Boston Marathon Bombing case. I was deeply saddened to hear of the outcome, though not surprised—jurors who opposed the death penalty for religious or ethical reasons were excluded from being impaneled on the jury. Massachusetts residents were surveyed about whether they thought that Tsarnaev should receive life in prison or death, the overwhelming majority (62 to 27 percent) favored life imprisonment. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/us/most-boston-residents-prefer-life-term-over-death-penalty-in-marathon-case-poll-shows.html). However, because these jurors were not allowed to be impaneled, the jury pool is not representative of the community in which the crime took place.

The US conference on Catholic Bishops spoke again recently on the reason to oppose the death penalty. (See http://americamagazine.org/issue/boston-bomber-case-bishops-object-death-penalty-punishment) The Catholic Church’s stance is that the death penalty may only be used in extremely rare cases where an unjust aggressor cannot otherwise be stopped. With the existence of prisons that can prevent perpetrators from committing future acts to harm others, these cases are perhaps even non-existent in our own society.

The Catholic opposition to the death penalty is based on the idea that every life has human dignity, even the life of a person who commits a crime on the scale of the Marathon Bombings. Tsarnaev’s actions were deplorable, but his life has dignity because he is human. I visit a prison with men who are incarcerated for a variety of reasons, including murder, and the popular perception that everyone who has committed a violent crime is merely an “animal” is simply untrue. The men in prison with whom I visit are remarkably like everyone else in many respects. Some have made serious mistakes but over time, people can undergo remarkable conversions. Imprisonment for Tsarnaev would allow him time to consider and to reflect on the wrong that he committed and to be remorseful. Even if he were never remorseful, the wrong of taking a human life remains wrong even if carried out by the government in the name of justice. We as a society have to take the higher ground of standing for the sanctity of all life, every human life.

The death penalty is part of a larger model of justice that is based on the idea of punishment as retribution: the idea that punishment is a way of evening out the “balance scales” of justice by taking away from a perpetrator whatever he or she has taken away from another. It stands in contrast with models of restorative justice, which seek to promote healing and the restoration of communities in the aftermath of violence or harm. (For an overview of restorative justice models, see  http://www.restorativejustice.org/university-classroom/01introduction).

The difficulty with the retributive model are many. For one, the pain that the families who lost loved ones have suffered will not be taken away by Tsarnaev’s death. I cannot imagine their suffering and so am not capable of speaking on behalf of the victims’ family. However, the Richard family themselves asked publicly in favor of imprisonment, so that their own suffering is not prolonged by a continued series of courtroom appeals and the public presence of the crime in the media.(See http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/16/end-anguish-drop-death-penalty/ocQLejp8H2vesDavItHIEN/story.html) Our current justice system does not always allow victims’ families to have a sufficient voice in the process by which justice is carried out. The voices of the families who were most harmed, as well as the voice of the larger community that has been affected by the bombings should have been heard.

3 thoughts on “Tsarnaev, the death penalty, and the sanctity of human life

  1. Well put! Of course this decision will be appealed. More time and money will be spent; and more agony for the victims–for all of us.

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