Culture At Large

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death penalty

Gail Rice

As a family member of a murder victim and long-time opponent of the death penalty, I'm watching with great interest the sentencing phase of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial, which will determine whether he receives the death penalty.

One could argue that Tsarnaev's case is not like others. There is no question that he committed the crime, a horrible act of terrorism. The toll of the dead and wounded is staggering. And, as evidenced by the photograph prosecutors shared of Tsarnaev giving an obscene gesture to a security camera while in custody, he has been defiant, not repentant.

It is tempting to say that Tsarnaev is sub-human and unredeemable. Yet I would urge Christians to reject that idea. Despite his horrible acts, Tsarnaev was created in the image of God and is loved by God. Who are we to say that there is no possibility for forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption in the case of any criminal? Only God can say this. But the death penalty cuts off the possibility of these outcomes, which Christ always wants us to work toward.

Studies have shown that the death penalty has done great harm to America. It has failed to deter crime, has cost millions more than life-without-parole sentences, has killed innocent people and has harmed the country’s reputation. But the greatest damage is the spiritual damage. Capital punishment encourages the spirit of vengeance and revenge. It is a violent act of retribution that encourages the state to do what we have abhorred so much in the murderer. And it creates a new circle of victims.

It is tempting to say that Tsarnaev is sub-human and unredeemable.

Those who claim that we must execute Tsarnaev for the sake of the murder victims' family members should take note of the objections of some of them, including the sister of Sean Collier (a police officer who was killed by Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, a few days after the bombing) and Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son, Martin, was murdered in the blast. In a written statement, the Richards said, "We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. …To end the anguish, drop the death penalty." So what would most help these family members who have suffered greatly? Not the death penalty, which I fear would add many years of agony to their lives.

The man who killed my brother would have been sentenced to death if he hadn't committed suicide at the murder scene. And so I know that the Richards speak the truth about the reverberating pain of the death penalty. Instead, a sentence of life without parole for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brings severe punishment, allows victims and family members to get on with their lives and does not violate our values as Christians.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice, North America