The Boston Marathon Bomber and the Conservative Case Against Capital Punishment

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Photograph by Photo

So now we’re going to try to execute the Boston Marathon bomber. As heinous as his (alleged) crime was—and it was unforgivable—Dzhokhar Tsarnaev provides an ideal opportunity to make a conservative case against the death penalty. And here’s a bonus: Liberal foes of capital punishment can drop their sentimental arguments about the sanctity of human life and sign onto this simpler, more utilitarian basis for locking up merciless killers for life.

Federal prosecutors announced on Thursday that they will seek to execute Tsarnaev if he’s convicted of bombing last year’s marathon in Boston, an act that killed three people and injured 260. As our colleagues at Bloomberg News report, the marathon bombing was the first fatal terrorist incident in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said of the capital punishment announcement. Tsarnaev, a 20-year-old former college student, pleaded not guilty in July to 30 counts, including allegations that he killed a police officer in the days after the horrific bombing. The federal government charged him with leaving homemade bombs among spectators near the finish line of the Boston race on April 15. His older brother, who allegedly organized the attack, was killed after a shootout with police.

Holder’s announcement provoked the usual reflexive criticism. “Capital punishment contributes to a cycle of violence, and it is outrageous that as the world moves away from the death penalty, the U.S. federal government has decided to seek a death sentence,” Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International, said in an e-mail. Great—a terrorist attacks innocent Americans, and Washington’s response provides an opportunity to bash … America. When will we extricate ourselves from this syndrome?

Soon to follow: more personally tailored tales of woe from the ace anti-capital-punishment defense lawyers who will rally to Tsarnaev’s side. He was influenced by his older brother, the conveniently expired ringleader. He was depressed and not in his right mind. He was hornswoggled by al-Qaeda Internet terrorist porn about killing Americans to avenge the lives of Muslim casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Please, spare me.

We’re going to get barraged by all kinds of marginally relevant evidence about the defendant’s personality when the central question is: Did he do the awful act, and did he know what he was doing? Death-row groupies will try to shift sympathy from the real victims to the boyishly handsome Tsarnaev. There will be rallies and college campus teach-ins.

There’s the time and ungodly expense of a death-penalty case. Executing someone is very difficult in the U.S., as it ought to be. Years of delay and millions of dollars in legal and administrative fees will get added to this miserable situation. Victims’ families will demand “closure.” Cable television anchors will remind us that justice delayed is justice denied. “The legal proceedings will be greatly complicated and will take much longer to complete,” Mark Pearlstein, a former prosecutor in Boston who’s now with McDermott Will & Emery, succinctly told Bloomberg News.

Why don’t we save ourselves the trouble? Seek life imprisonment without parole. Move quickly to trial. Most or all of the “mitigating” evidence about the defendant’s emotional (mis)development would become irrelevant. The fancy anti-death-penalty lawyers would lose interest.

Based on what we know from surveillance camera footage showing Tsarnaev at the scene and how he was captured hiding in a dry-docked boat, I predict a quick conviction. Over and out. He goes to a supermax prison, and we can console the survivors without obsessing further about the strange Russian immigrant and ethnic Chechen who enjoyed many of the benefits of American life and repaid our society with senseless slaughter.

Ending the death penalty makes even more sense in cases where guilt is actually in doubt. A life sentence leaves the option to revisit culpability if new exonerating evidence surfaces. Most of all, though, do away with capital punishment to take the focus off evil killers.

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