U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will face the death penalty when finally brought to trial. “After consideration of the relevant facts, the applicable regulations and the submissions made by the defendant’s counsel, I have determined that the United States will seek the death penalty in this matter,” Holder said on Jan. 30.
Holder’s decision comes more than nine months after bombs hidden in two backpacks exploded near the finish line on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others.
The Boston attack was one of the deadliest terrorist actions on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 tragedy in 2001. Although the Attorney General is personally opposed to the death penalty, he claims that in this case, “The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.”
Cited as reasons for Holder’s decision are: Tsarnaev’s apparent lack of remorse since the devastating incident, the fact that one of the fatalities was just a child (8-year-old Martin Richard), and the suspect’s alleged “betrayal of the United States.” In an eight-page court document filed by prosecutors, it is claimed that Tsarnaev turned his back on the country which granted him asylum following his family’s flight from Kyrgyzstan in 2002. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people in the United States,” the document states.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces 30 federal charges relating to the construction and detonation of the homemade explosive devices, and is also accused of the shooting murder of a M.I.T. police officer in the days after the bombings. He has pleaded “not guilty” to these charges.
The other main suspect, Tsarnaev’s 26-year-old brother Tamerlan – who may have been the ‘brains’ behind the attack – was shot dead by police during the manhunt which followed the bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is also a leading suspect in a drug-related triple homicide which occurred in Boston in 2011, and was reportedly tagged as a militant Islamic radical by Russian security forces in that same year. However, investigations by the FBI following the warning from Moscow failed to uncover any indications that Tamerlan or his brother were likely to engage in terrorist activities.
Despite the unusual level and nature of 20-year-old Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes, there are serious doubts that he will ever face the ultimate sanction if found guilty by a federal court. Since 1964, the federal government has only executed three people – one of whom was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001 – and yet the death penalty has been authorized for about 500 federal suspects in the past 25 years. Although prosecutors are barred from using the death penalty as a way to induce a guilty plea, it is nevertheless true that in almost half of all federal death penalty cases, the threat of execution has been withdrawn prior to trial due to a plea deal.
Additionally, Tsarnaev’s defense team will include Judy Clarke, who has made a name for herself by keeping several high profile clients off death row. Clarke’s earlier successes include Unabomber ‘Ted’ Kaczynski and serial bomber Eric Rudolph, who both reached plea deals to avoid execution, as well as 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Perhaps more important than any of these obstacles, however, is the overwhelming opposition to capital punishment by Massachusetts residents. The state removed the death penalty from its books in 1984, and has not executed anyone since 1947. Opinion polls comprehensively show that most locals are against a death sentence for the young Chechen American, and several leading media commentators have also weighed into the debate, suggesting that this is a chance for America to show it is less barbaric than those who would attack it.
If found guilty – and prosecutors say the evidence against Tsarnaev is overwhelming – the bombing suspect could still face death by lethal injection, although as recent death-house debacles in Ohio and Missouri have shown, America’s preferred method of execution is rapidly becoming untenable.
According to Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor who assisted in the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the Attorney General’s decision to authorize the death penalty in this case is the right one. “If not in this case, then you have to ask when?” Goelman told USAToday.
It’s an important question, though perhaps not entirely in the way that Goelman intended. Across America, support for capital punishment is dropping and the current furore over lethal injections may serve to exacerbate that change in public perception. If Tsarnaev evades a death sentence, as a surprising number of people believe he should, the entire nation may soon find itself debating the idea of seeking revenge and calling it justice.