Opinion: Boston bomber killed 3 and injured hundreds, but is the death penalty ever the right punishment?

Is the death penalty the right punishment? For Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, this question has been asked numerous times. Over the past seven years, he has had a death sentence instated, which was later vacated, only to have it reinstated by the US Supreme Court. Tsarnaev will die for his crime. But, is any crime cause enough for the government to instate a death penalty? Is the death penalty ever just?

In 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, committed a domestic terrorist attack during the Boston marathon. Two bombs made in pressure cookers exploded within seconds of each other, resulting in the death of three people, including an eight-year-old boy. 

A manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers resulted in shootout with the policeman, which left a policeman and Tamerlan dead. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found the following day and arrested, and he pleaded guilty in his trial in 2015. He was found guilty on all 30 charges and sentenced to death, and following the verdict Tsarnaev admitted his guilt and apologised. 

Three years later, in 2018, Tsarnaev’s attorneys appealed his death sentence on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial, which had ignored evidence that should have been relevant. The evidence was that Tamerlan, thought to be the ‘mastermind’ of the bombing, had been involved with the 2011 triple murder in act of jihad. This, the attorneys argued, showed that Tsarnaev played a secondary role in the bombings. The court agreed that this evidence should spare Tsarnaev’s life, and in 2020 removed Tsarnaev’s death sentence, but he was still sentenced to remain in federal prison for the rest of his life.

However, on the 4th March 2022, the US Supreme Court reversed this decision and reinstated Tsarnaev’s death sentence. This means that, in the last seven years, Tsarnaev has had a death sentence instated, which was later vacated, only to have it reinstated. 

For many people living in the UK, death sentences seem absurd. They have been abolished in the UK since 1964, whereas over half of the states in the USA, as well as the military and the federal government, still can use the death penalty as punishment. Since 1976, the USA have had 1,543 executions, and the main states that implement the death sentence are Oklahoma, Alabama, and Texas, which account for half of the cases. 

While 27 states can use the death penalty, many do not. 13 of the states with the death penalty, including the US military, have not carried out an execution in a decade or more. The number of executions has reduced each year, and there seems to be a dwindling support for the capital punishment. However, more than half of Americans still see the death sentence as a justified punishment for murderers – 64% of US adults are in favour of the death penalty. 

It is unlikely that Tsarnaev will be executed anytime soon. Biden has reimplemented a federal execution moratorium, meaning that federal executions will not take place while the Justice Department reviews its policies and procedures. Moreover, carrying out death penalties has become more challenging since pharmaceutical companies – including Pfizer – have stopped supplying lethal injections. As according to the Hippocratic oath, medicine should “do no harm”. Some argue that euthanising chemicals do not come under medical ethics, meaning that pharmaceutical companies can morally manufacture it without violating the Hippocratic oath. This argument, to me, seems to be an intentional manipulation of what is considered medical ethics, and a disregard of the role and reputation of pharmaceutical companies in order to justify the manufacturing of a drug that is arguably used unethically.

Pharmaceutical companies’ anti-execution move has led to more cruel executions. States have had to seek alternative euthanising chemicals from overseas manufacturers or compounding pharmacies, which are more loosely regulated and less reputable. This has resulted in botched lethal injections, with inmates convulsing and vomiting before their death. Some states have returned to older execution methods: Utah has brought back the firing squad, and Tennessee is now using the electric chair. It is debatable whether there is any humane way of administering a death sentence, but it is evident that botched lethal injections, firing squads, and electric chairs are not the way.

It seems that the largest reason for the abolition of death sentences is the concern of executing innocent people. Since 1973, 186 people on death row have been exonerated, meaning that for every nine people executed, one has been exonerated. While some people argue that this shows the checks and balances are working, arguably the imperfection of the justice will inevitably lead to innocent people being wrongly executed. An absolute decision should not be made on a system that is imperfect – even “beyond unreasonable doubt” is not enough to warrant the just death of another person.

And even if, hypothetically, it could be proved without any doubt that an individual had committed a murder, it would still not be just to give them the death sentence. As Equal Justice Initiative eloquently put, ‘The question we need to ask about the death penalty in America is not whether someone deserves to die for a crime. The question is whether we deserve to kill.’ A government should not have the power to kill their own citizen as a form of punishment. The irony seems to be lost on them: murder is wrong. Murdering a murderer does not absolve the crime – it doubles it.

The death sentence is an outdated form of punishment that no modern government should have the power to implement. While the number of executions is reducing each year, those who are executed often have mental illness or intellectual disabilities, meaning that it is not targeting ‘the worst of the worst, but the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.’ It is an impractical response that leads to more harm than good: inmates spend an average of 22 years on death row before their execution; death dates are often changed; and executions cannot be guaranteed to be humane.

Tsarnaev should spend the rest of his life in jail for committing domestic terrorism which killed 3 people. He is guilty. But, there is hope that pharmaceutical companies’ anti-execution ban may lead to a long-overdue federal abolition on the death penalty in the US. Tsarnaev should not be given the death sentence, regardless if he ‘deserves’ it. More murder is not the answer to murder. Moreover, the death sentence will inevitably lead to justice itself shedding innocent blood.

Further reading

Amnesty International: Death Penalty

The Marshall Project: The Next to Die

The Death Penalty Project

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