Survivors speak before life or death decision on Boston bomber

Life without parole for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could prevent years of appeal hearings

Security was tight yesterday for the second marathon since the Boston bombings as spectators lined the route to cheer on the 30,000 runners.

On Boston Common, as the runners prepared to race, emotions were mixed about what should happen next for the convicted 21-year-old bomber who caused carnage near the finish line of this famous race two years ago.

"I'd rather see him get the death penalty, just from a taxpayer dollar standpoint," said Evan Curtis (28), a resident of the city, as he prepared for his second Boston Marathon, the 119th running of the race. "I don't think we should have to pay for him to spend the rest of his life in jail, regardless of the conditions."

"I would rather life without parole, because the death penalty is too easy for him – he will be considered like a god, a martyr or a saint," said Maria Vaughan (40), from Everett, Massachusetts.


On April 8th, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen brought to the US as a child, of all 30 counts against him, 17 of which carry the death penalty, linked to the twin blasts on Boston’s Boylston Street that killed three and wounded more than 260 others.


Tsarnaev was also convicted of the fatal shooting of a Massachusetts policeman four days after the bombings, hours before a shootout with police that left his older brother and fellow bomber, Tamerlan (26), dead.

Today a Boston court will begin the sentencing phase of this trial when a jury of seven women and five men will decide whether Tsarnaev should die or spend the rest of his life in prison. His lawyers claim that he should be spared death because he was manipulated by his radicalised older sibling.

To secure a conviction, the government played heavily on graphic, and at times difficult, testimony about the devastating injuries inflicted on eight-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the blasts, who was blown apart by flying nails, ball bearings and shrapnel packed in the pressure-cooker bomb that Tsarnaev planted behind the Richards as they watched the marathon on a family day out.

For locals in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country, the case creates an emotional dilemma. In court, Tsarnaev, painted by prosecutors as a jihadist seeking revenge on Americans, was shown to have carried out a heinous attack on innocent people. Video evidence showed Tsarnaev standing behind the Richard children for four minutes before his bomb detonated.

Massachusetts last executed someone in 1947 and abolished the death penalty in 1984, but this is a federal, not a state, case, and the government has sought capital punishment for Tsarnaev over his devastating attack, the deadliest on US soil since September 11th, 2001.

"I am torn – I don't think there is anything bad enough that you could do to him for what he did here, but it is hard: do you really want to put somebody to death?" said Hazel Knof, 67, from Rowley, Massachusetts, preparing to run her first Boston Marathon.

A poll last week by Boston news station WBUR found that the death penalty was less popular among city residents, with those preferring life without parole rising by 10 points to 61 per cent over the past month.

On Friday, Bill and Denise Richard, Martin's parents, in an open letter published on the front page of the Boston Globe, urged the government to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for life without parole and Tsarnaev waiving all rights to appeal.

Painful reminder

Their decision was not based on opposition to the death penalty but to allow them and their two other children, including Jane who, then seven, lost a leg in the blasts, to avoid long-running appeals and the “lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them”.

On Sunday, married couple Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, who each lost limbs in the attacks, joined the Richards in urging the government, through a statement to the Boston Globe, not to kill Tsarnaev.

“If there is anyone who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant,” they wrote. “However, we must overcome the impulse for vengence.”

Legal experts say the statements will not be admissible during the sentencing, but may force a change from the government. "It puts the prosecutors in a sort of uncomfortable position," said Daniel Medwed, professor of law at Northeastern University in Boston. "Do they continue to rely on the Martin Richard case as part of its presentation that Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty, or should it, as a matter of strategy and humanity, focus on other aspects of the crime out of deference to their wishes?"

Michael Coyne, dean of Massachusetts School of Law, thinks the government should go further and drop the death penalty in favour of life without parole, and avoid up to five years of painful appeals.

“It has been an extraordinarily difficult trial for the survivors and the jury,” he said. “Bringing some closure to the events for the survivors would be a significant positive result.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times