The commonwealth of Massachusetts last put a person to death in 1947 by electric chair. The public was so appalled that, just a few years later, the Massachusetts General Assembly prohibited the sentence except for exceedingly rare circumstances.
In 1984, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts finally declared the death penalty in all cases to be an unconstitutional violation of the right against cruel and unusual punishment. Since that time, William Weld and Mitt Romney, two Republican Governors of this commonwealth, have attempted to reinstate the death penalty. Yet, they both have been rebuffed by the strong spirit of the people of Massachusetts, who stand firmly against the death penalty.
About two weeks ago, two brothers set off bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and later went on a rampage in both Cambridge and Watertown, Mass., killing four people in all and wounding countless others.
Between the two suspects, the one who was apprehended alive, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was charged with “the use of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death,” which is a federal crime. Since the federal government has retained the use of the death penalty, Tsarnaev would still be eligible for that sentence under the federal crimes with which he has been charged. Carmen Ortiz, the United States attorney for Massachusetts, now must make the decision, under her prosecutorial discretion, whether to seek the ultimate penalty for the alleged Boston Marathon terrorist.
U.S. Attorney Ortiz would be mistaken to seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev, as it would be incorrect to impose such a penalty in a region that has repudiated it for their community. While I believe the death penalty, in all circumstances, is cruel and wrong, it would be extraordinarily objectionable to impose its use upon a jurisdiction that has disavowed it.
Within recent years, the federal government has executed three people, the most famous being Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. However, Oklahoma has used the death penalty extensively within their judicial systems. The other two committed their offenses in Texas, which, like Oklahoma, locally uses the death penalty quite extensively. As Johnny Holmes, the former district attorney in my home county, Harris County, Tex., once said, “I say without apology that if you murder someone, the state of Texas is going to kill you.” As much as I have a deep-seated philosophical opposition to the death penalty, if the federal government decided to “kill” someone murdered in such a jurisdiction, they would be continuing the tradition and the opinion of the community.
However, such a zeal for retributive punishment is not the opinion of the community in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. While the murder of four people, including a police officer, is surely an indescribably horrible act, the maximum punishment for this crime, if adjudicated in the commonwealth’s courts, would be life in prison without the possibility of parole. Imprisoning Tsarnaev and throwing away the key would not be, as some law-and-order conservatives say, to let him off easy.
Rather, it would force him to face what he did, and not take the easy way out. After all, there is a reason this community wanted Tsarnaev to be taken alive during the infamous manhunt.
Plenty of reprehensible federal crimes do not have the death penalty sought. It would not be especially out of the ordinary to simply seek the life-without-parole penalty for Tsarnaev, as that is the most common punishment for murderers tried in federal court.
Finally, Attorney General Eric Holder has the power of final approval for the punishment other federal prosecutors may request, and President Obama always may commute a death sentence.
The last time the federal government has executed an individual in a jurisdiction that has locally prohibited the death penalty was in 1938.
In that case, an individual in Michigan was put to death by the federal government against the wishes of both the governor of Michigan and the general public of the state. According to a 1998 issue of the Michigan History Museum, the governor reportedly told President Roosevelt, “There hasn’t been a hanging in Michigan for 108 years. If this one is carried out in Michigan, it will be like turning back the clock of civilization.”
That “clock of civilization” risks being set back a number of decades once again. For the sake of not spilling any more blood in this commonwealth, the U.S. attorney should use her prosecutorial discretion to not seek the death penalty against the Boston Marathon terrorist.