The trial lasted more than two months, but the jury only needed 14 hours of deliberation to decide that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should get the death penalty. But that wasn’t what one victim’s family wanted.
The past two years have seen courts and communities wrestling with what to do with Tsarnaev, more commonly known as “the Boston bomber,” and as of last Friday he has been sentenced to death for his participation in the 2013 plot to bomb the Boston Marathon. But the death penalty verdict comes in staunch opposition to the wishes of the majority of Boston, including survivors of the bombing.
In fact, CBS News Poll found that although 60 percent of Americans living outside Boston were in favor of the death penalty for Tsarnaev, only 15 percent of city residents did. Statewide, that number only gets to 19 percent. That was the certainly the case for Bill and Denise Richard, parents to two Boston bombing victims, who penned a letter asking prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Their reasoning is clear, and powerful:
We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.
And they’re spot-on. This isn’t the end of this so-called ‘fight for justice,’ only the beginning.
As FiveThirtyEight reports, the time between sentencing and execution has climbed dramatically in recent years, as the result of more lengthy appeals. In 2013, the average time on death row for those executed came in at 15 years. Beyond that, only 1 in 6 Americans sentenced to deaths since 1976 have been executed.
So it isn’t just those sentenced, but the victims as well for which a life sentence can be more merciful. As Terry Lenamon, a criminal trial lawyer specializing in death penalty cases, puts it, the life sentence is “much quicker, much shorter, and much less complex” for grieving loved ones.
“Victims seeing [the long wait times of death row], knowing that, think to themselves, ‘what’s the purpose? We want to move on with our lives.’ And the more complicated the court proceedings become, they can’t move on,” said Lenamon, author of the Death Penalty blog. And that complication is almost always present throughout death penalty cases, and beyond, thanks to the intense amount of examination and due diligence that makes up the reaction to a trial like that.
If this were just about life in prison, Lenamon estimates that the rehashing of the trial would have been largely over for families in a couple years or so. But the coming years will find plenty of scrutiny placed on the lawyers, trial, and verdict in the Boston bombing cases—only prolonging the experience for those who find themselves reliving one of the worst days of their lives.
“It’s a long, long process…they are probably thinking they just want to get on with it; they want closure. But with the death penalty in play that’s not an easy issue.”
Lenamon notes that in the federal death penalty system there’s protocol for that the prosecution consult the family and loved ones of the deceased to make their feelings about seeking the death penalty clear. The problem is that these opinions are normally weighed against the rest of the case—the result varying from prosecutor to prosecutor, with the context and details of the case.
But in a crime with the size and effect of the Boston bombings, it was unlikely from the beginning that the victims’ rights would be powerful enough to talk the court out of sending a message.
“Obviously, in a case of such magnitude as the one in Boston, it wasn’t going to play out in favor of the victims,” said Lenamon. “This case was about terrorism, and there were multiple deaths and injuries…[and now for the victims] the issue of closure becomes problematic.”
That choice can bump the examination of the case from a couple years to possibly decades. As The New York Times notes, only three of the 80 defendants sentenced to death since 1988 have been executed. As of now there’s no news as to when the Judge will formally sentence Tsarnaev.
“Once it’s in motion the train rarely derails,” said Lenamon. “The case never stops.”