Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Sentenced To Death In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial
Final justice, but far from the end of the road.
Five weeks after having been convicted of his role in the Boston Marathon Bombing, and two years and one month from the day of the bombing itself, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death today by a Federal Court jury made up largely of residents of the city that he and his brother had terrorized for a week in April 2013:
BOSTON — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat stone-faced in a federal court here on Friday as a jury sentenced him to death for setting off bombs at the 2013Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured hundreds more in the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
The jury of seven women and five men, which last month convicted Mr. Tsarnaev, 21, of all 30 charges against him, 17 of which carry the death penalty, took more than 14 hours to reach its decision.
It was the first time a federal jury had sentenced a terrorist to death in the post-Sept. 11 era, according to Kevin McNally, director of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which coordinates the defense in capital punishment cases.
Prosecutors portrayed Mr. Tsarnaev, who immigrated to Cambridge, Mass., from the Russian Caucasus with his family in 2002, as a coldblooded, unrepentant jihadist who sought to kill innocent Americans in retaliation for the deaths of innocent Muslims in American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Tsarnaev verdict goes against the grain in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty for state crimes and where polls showed that residents overwhelmingly favored life in prison for Mr. Tsarnaev. Many respondents said that life in prison for one so young would be a fate worse than death, and some worried that execution would make him a martyr.
But the jurors in his case had to be “death qualified” — that is, they all had to be willing to impose the death penalty to serve on the jury. So in that sense, the jury was not representative of the state.
Before they could decide that Mr. Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, the jurors had to wade through a complicated, 24-page verdict slip. On it, they had to weigh the aggravating factors that would justify his death as well as the mitigating factors, presented by the defense, that would argue for him to live.
Despite that complicated process, Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. of Federal District Court, who presided in the case, told jurors that their final decision should not be based on a numerical comparison of aggravating factors to mitigating factors. Rather, he said, they should use their individual judgment and internal moral compass.
The final words that jurors heard before beginning deliberations on Wednesday were a blistering assessment from William Weinreb, the lead prosecutor, about why Mr. Tsarnaev should be executed and not simply locked up.
“The callousness and indifference that allows you to destroy people’s lives, to ignore their pain, to shrug off their heartbreak — that doesn’t go away just because you’re locked up in a prison cell,” Mr. Weinreb told them. “It’s what enables you to be a terrorist, and it’s what insulates you from feelings of remorse.”
Life imprisonment, he added, is the minimum punishment authorized by law for these deaths — the three at the marathon and the death a few days later of an M.I.T. police officer. It is “a lesser punishment than death,” he said, even though some argue that a lifetime in prison is worse.
“Does he deserve the minimum punishment, or do these crimes, these four deaths, demand something more?” Mr. Weinreb asked the jury. “Please ask yourself that question when you go back to deliberate.”
By all accounts, the prosecution presented as solid and strong a case in the sentencing phase of the trial as they did in the guilt phase of the trial. Given the nature of the attack that Tsarnaev was involved in, and the manner in which the attack was carried out, it probably wasn’t very hard for the jurors to go through each of the aggravating factors set forth on the 24 page form referenced above and find agreement that the prosecution had met its burden. By and large, that is exactly what they did. There were a small number of aggravating factors were the jurors could not find agreement, but for the most part they found that Tsarnaev’s actions met each of the criteria that the law requires the jury to find in order to reach the point where a death sentence can be considered.
The real test of the sentencing phase of the trial was whether the defense would be able to put forward enough mitigating evidence to convince at least one of the jurors that a sentence of death would be inappropriate. Toward that end, the defense portion of the sentencing phase concentrated on the relationship between Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan, Tamerlan’s radicalization before and after his trip to Russia, the influence of both Tamerlan and his mother in radicalizing Dzhokhar, and the argument that Tamerlan was the one who planned the bombing and used his influence to convince his brother to participate. This was accomplished mainly through testimony from some of Tsarnaev’s relatives, many of whom had been flown to Boston from Russia for the purpose of testifying. Additionally, the defense presented testimony from Sister Helen Prejean, the anti death penalty activist who was the basis for the main character in the movie Dead Man Walking. Prejean had previously met with Tsarnaev in prison and testified to what she claimed was remorse that he communicated to her during their conversations. This, however, was the only real evidence of remorse that the defense presented to the jury. Tsarnev himself, of course, did not testify because anything he could have said that would have helped mitigate his faith would have likely been more than offset by whatever would come out in cross-examination. In the end, perhaps not surprisingly, the defense’s efforts to save Tsarnaev failed and there were only a few jurors who found the existence of any of the mitigating factors Obviously though, even for those jurors the mitigating factors were not sufficient to outweigh the totality of the evidence, and they unanimously sentenced him to die.
Now that Tsarnaev has been sentenced, the court system will do what it does in these cases. By law, he is entitled to a number of appeals and several legal observers have noted that there are several legal issues that could form the basis for a strong appeal even though it is unlikely that either the verdict or the sentence will be overturned, What remains unknown at this point is when Tsarnaev might actually be executed. By way for reference, Timothy McVeigh was convicted for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1997 and executed in 2001, but that four year gap is not necessarily a good guide since McVeigh had ultimately abandoned his remaining appeals in 1999. A better measure is the fact that, since 1988 eighty people have been sentenced to die in Federal Court, but only three of them, including Timothy McVeigh, have been executed. Of the remainder, some have died in prison or had their sentenced vacated, but the majority of them are cases that are still tied up in appeals. If Tsarnaev chooses to, this matter could be tied up for some time to come, which is, of course, one of the factors that led the family of eight year-old victim Martin Richard to call for him to be sentenced to life in prison instead of death. The jury was made aware of that fact during the sentencing phase, but chose to sentence him to die anyway. So, now, it just turns into a long waiting game.