Death Penalty for Tsarnaev?

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted by an impartial jury of 12 locals wearing “Boston Strong” T-shirts. Now they are deciding what to do with him.

This is a tough question because we’ve amped up the sentences for ordinary crimes so much that we don’t have anything special left for those who commit especially bad crimes. If someone can get life in prison for killing one person or, in some states, simply being convicted of multiple lesser crimes, what to do with someone who killed and maimed so many people, shut down a city, etc.?

I observed a Facebook exchange in which one guy pointed out that it was going to be costly to keep Tsarnaev in prison potentially for 80 additional years (the jihadi is currently just 21 years old) and pay for exotic medical procedures towards the end of his life, explaining that it cost even more to deliver U.S.-style medicine in prison than it does in civilian hospitals. A friend pointed out that the death penalty would be vastly more expensive than imprisonment. Although economics does not seem like the right way to evaluate these alternatives, I became curious. Back in 2012 the stated cost of federal imprisonment was $34,000 per year (source) so let’s say that it is $45,000 today (adjust for inflation and for the fact that pension costs are invariably understated in public accounting; with accurate accounting California prison guards earn more than Harvard graduates). So it will be $3.6 million to keep Tsarnaev in prison for 80 years plus perhaps another $2 million in medical costs = $5.6 million total.

What does it cost to execute someone? Missouri is a state that regularly executes its unwanted citizens. This article on the recent execution of Andre Cole says that it took roughly 16 years from crime to death (back in 1995, Cole’s wife decided to get rid of him but keep the house, the kids, and a portion of his paycheck; in 1998, having fallen behind on child support payments and being pursued by the $6 billion federal/state child support enforcement bureaucracy, Cole injured the plaintiff and killed her boyfriend; he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury). Let’s assume that 16-year period is typical. The Marathon bombing was in 2013 so it would cost the government another 14 years of imprisonment ($630,000) plus legal fees on both sides of the case. This anti-death penalty group says that legal costs are between $2 and $3 million, depending on the state.

It therefore seems that it would in fact be cheaper to execute Tsarnaev. Would it be fair, though?

One argument against the death penalty is that the government often makes mistakes, thus executing people who did not commit the crimes with which they were charged. “You wouldn’t want the workers at the DMV making life or death decisions,” a friend noted. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of doubt regarding Tsarnaev’s involvement in the Marathon bombings, however.

An argument against executing Mr. Tsarnaev is that the entire family was open regarding their desire to wage jihad. In fact that was their reason for asking for and receiving fast-track citizenship: the Russian government was unsympathetic to their struggle against infidels. We kept the red carpet rolled out despite various family members’ strings of lesser crimes and despite being warned by the Russian government that the older brother was an active jihadi. How is it fair to execute someone who did what he said that he was going to do? If we didn’t want him to carry out jihad in Boston we didn’t have to grant him citizenship, give the brothers free housing in Cambridge, etc.

What do readers think? Consistent with what the American criminal justice system can actually do, what is the fairest sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

[Personally I am against the death penalty for Mr. Tsarnaev following the trial that he actually had. I think that trying him in downtown Boston, despite the elaborate procedures, pomp, and circumstance, cannot qualify as systematized justice. Given the outrage that Americans felt regarding the bombings, in order to preserve the pretense of bureaucratized justice, I think we should have asked a Canadian judge and jury to hear the case and be bound by their decision. Separately, I think that keeping Tsarnaev around is a good reminder of the consequences of our hubris in thinking that our FBI was better positioned to evaluate Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s plans than were the Russian security forces (we couldn’t even figure out that Tamerlan was involved in the 2011 Waltham murders).]

16 thoughts on “Death Penalty for Tsarnaev?

  1. You are all over the place here… the question of guilt or innocence and suitable punishment presuming guilt are orthogonal to the question of cost of incarceration, the fully realized salary of a prison guard, and the effectiveness of the FBI. No to the death penalty if only on grounds of consistency – there is no justifiable homicide even when or especially when the actor is the state. Now lets talk about how we justify war.

  2. The boat he was hiding in was hit 110(!) times with bullets. It seems to me that for someone who survived that hailstorm, and a firefight in Watertown; killed his own murderer-brother by running him over with an SUV, and was cured by excellent surgeons to stand trial, it would be a waste to end his life on electric chair. Also, life sentence would equal oblivion for him, while death sentence would be another cause for media attention and, more importantly, another recruiting argument for our enemies (a promised place in Heaven).

  3. Assuming we are going to have a death sentence at all (and the Federal death penalty does exist and has been held constitutional) I can’t think of a case where it is more deserved than Tsarnaev. The police were aware of this, especially since he killed a fellow cop, and they tried their best to kill him on the night of his arrest (the boat looked like Bonnie & Clyde’s Ford V8). That others (his brother, the FBI, etc.) were also negligent or behaved even worse does not negate his own guilt for the heinous crimes that he admits he committed. Even if it costs the government ten times as much to kill him as to keep him for 80 years, it would be worth it. That being said, even if he does receive the death penalty it will be tied up in endless appeals, not just for 14 years but for decades, such is the dysfunction of our system. The only way he will actually be executed is if he voluntarily drops his appeals and allows it to happen.

  4. A death sentence is really revenge. That should not be governments intent. What the government should really seek is simply to isolate the offender from law abiding society so that the social gears that make us an efficient cooperative society can continue to turn . Cost doesn’t ultimately seem to be an issue from our legislators point of view and as you say there probably isn’t much difference in cost between either capital penalty. I would personally choose to have life imprisonment, but with one caveat. If we ask ourselves what lasting damage an offender can cause, the most prominent that comes to mind is the lifelong effect on immediate family members of the murdered. Can family members continue to lead a reasonable normal life knowing that the offender is living, and living comfortably under incarceration, while for the family members there is a constant reminder and an emotional hole for the remainder of their lives, i.e a kind of permanent collateral damage? On this basis I would let the survivors play a big part in the decision between the death penalty and life. I think this is done already to some extent in death penalty hearings, but it is never evident as the primary reason for the choice of solutions.

  5. Personally, I do not wish to have the state killing in my name. At all. I suppose in protecting the life and liberty of my fellow citizens, but I am aghast at how freely the police state uses their license to kill in that matter, so I am not even a hundred percent comfortable there.

    If we care about money, how ’bout just hiring a guy to kill him in prison? They got Dahmer pretty easily. What was that, three years in?

  6. I’m against the death penalty because the prosecution and juries frequently make mistakes. I think the Tsarnaev case appears to be open and shut, so the chance there was a mistake in this case is slim. But I can’t support the death penalty here because it condones the use against potentially innocent people in other cases (and conceivably here).

  7. I’m against the death penalty. It doesn’t fix anything. It clogs up the court system with endless appeals. It’s Byzantine. And Tsarnaev would only become a martyr figure. Life without parole seems justified in this case.

    However, I would add an addendum to all “life without..” sentences. That is: At anytime during incarceration the prisoner may make a one-time request to end his/her life by assisted suicide. The request shall be reviewed by something like a parole board. If granted, the prisoner, in coordination with the review board, will set a date certain for the procedure.

    The law should be written similar to existing “right to die” laws in Oregon, Netherlands, etc. The prisoner may revoke the request at any time up to the moment before death. If revoked, there is no opportunity for a second request.

  8. I think only now he is realizing the consequence of his actions. While he may not be sorry (we can never tell) in my opinion, he does not want the death penalty and is probably scared of dying. Why?

    If he does want to die as a martyr, via death penalty, he would have made a show in the court room and ridicule anyone speaking against his brother and that he was mislead by him, etc., etc. To date, he has been sitting quietly and while not showing any interest, he has not making any scene.

  9. My late father, a WWII vet who saw battle in D-Day and in the Ardennes Forest (Battle of the Bulge), asked me many years ago this simple question (after he’d listened to my pro-death penalty rant):
    “What human being in this world has the right to tell another human that they don’t get to live and breathe any more?”

    I have been against capital punishment ever since.

  10. @Mark: I have been against capital punishment ever since.

    Would you feel the same way if some evil person viciously killed your father?

    Wouldn’t you seek to strangle the killer with your own bare hands; or at least flip the switch on the electric chair or lethal injection? If not, the you’re either a liar or a detestable schmuck.

    And great appreciation for your father and his service.

  11. E.,

    Well, since my father has been deceased for almost a decade there is no chance he will be murdered. However, I think I’d react exactly as you intimated if a close family member was murdered, but I fail to see the relationship between a highly emotional reaction to an almost unimaginable circumstance and the morals of the death penalty. So what’s your point?

    There have been many instances of members of a murdered victim’s family readily stating that they did not wish to see the death penalty given to the killer. All I know for certain is that my late father’s simple question universally changed my own attitude towards the death penalty.

    Who do you believe has the right to tell another he doesn’t get to live and breathe any more?

    And as an aside, after his service in WWII my Dad hated war and nearly everything it stood for. I remember him saying more than once that there were three things he never wanted to do again:
    Shoot a gun, ride a boat and sleep in a tent. And to my knowledge, he rarely did any of those the rest of his life.

  12. Life sentence is relatively recent invention. Historically, there was death sentence viewed as way to keep society ‘spiritually clean’ from being co-shared with murderers (takers of someone life) and not considered revenge, family revenge by those who loved victims and forced labor to supposedly pay for the damages where no life was taken. Life sentence in full isolation or in max security prison is a cruel and unusual punishment, anything less is injustice to the victims and those who loved them.

  13. Mark,

    In our system of justice, no one human being makes that decision. 12 humans must unanimously agree and then their decision is reviewed by the trial judge and an appeals courts (and reviewed and reviewed again after the defense files one appeal after another). Certainly, this same group of humans gets to tell Tsarnaev that he will never walk the streets or see the outside of a prison again and no one seems to have any problem with that. It seems to me that it is possible that there are so crimes that are so heinous that the murderer does not deserve to live any more. We all (even his own attorneys) seem to agree that Tsarnaev must spend the rest of his life locked in a cage like an animal – it doesn’t seem to be a big step to deciding that it’s just a waste of money to keep feeding and housing him for the next 70 or so years – to what effect?

  14. Izzie,

    If true pain and suffering are the intended consequences for someone who has committed a heinous crime, life in prison would be far worse than death, at least to me.
    And I don’t think my late father’s question was designed to insinuate that one person says yes or no in deciding to carry out a death sentence. It was merely meant to ask who in this world has the right to tell another they don’t get to live and breathe any more.
    So IMO, it makes no difference whether it’s one person doing such or ten, it still boils down to the same thing.
    I completely understand capital punishment’s proponents. I was one of them for thirty years.

  15. You forgot to calculate the value of the organs that could be harvested. A heart + 2 kidneys + 2 lungs + liver would offset million$ in future medical costs for their new recipients who would surely put them to better use over the next 80 years than Mr. Tsarnaev?

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