The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving “Boston Marathon bomber”, has not resulted in the outcome that some of us might have hoped for. He has been sentenced to death. The editors of the Wall Street Journal declaim:
Had Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev been sentenced to life at a federal Supermax prison, his remaining years would have been spent in a tiny concrete cell, 23 hours a day, constantly alone, with barely a sight of the sky and none of the country. As punishment for crime goes, that might have been enough.
But more than punishment was at stake in the case of Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death Friday by a Boston jury after 14 hours of deliberation for the 2013 bombing that killed three and injured some 300, many maimed for life. The bombing was no mere criminal act carried out on an especially large scale. Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan, who died trying to escape arrest, carried out an act of war aimed at the institutions and values of American civic life.
The victims were unsuspecting and defenseless, and the damage done will be felt for decades. Think of the Richard family: Bill Richard, the father, eardrums blown and wounded with shrapnel; his wife Denise, who lost an eye; daughter Jane, who lost a leg; son Henry, unwounded but traumatized; son Martin, murdered at the age of eight.
No society serious about its self-defense and preservation can tolerate this. There are strong arguments for and against the death penalty, and there is no doubt that innocent men have been killed by the state. But there is no doubt of guilt in this case. And whatever else one believes about the death penalty, it sends an unmistakable message that even a society as tolerant as ours still believes that some acts deserve the ultimate penalty.
I think that most of us would agree that Mr. Tsarnaev does not make a particularly attractive case for opposing the death penalty. As I have mentioned before my view is that proportionality requires that for some degree of offense the death penalty should be available. Even in Mr. Tsarnaev’s case I’m not extremely comfortable with the death penalty.
Those who take principled stances against the death penalty should take some solace in the reality that Mr. Tsarnaev may never face it. The period of years required for appeals is a long time, as I have pointed out before. He may die. He may be murdered. The death penalty may be abolished in the United States.