Life after death—spending the rest of your life on death row

Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, receives the death penalty, but America is still in the dark on where he will wait out the interminable appeals process

Photo by isaiahjamal (Flickr)

April 15, 2013, began as an ordinary day for marathon runners competing in the 117th annual Boston Marathon, but the day ended as a tragedy that will forever be remembered in history.  Two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people and injuring over 200 others.  It was discovered only days later that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan, who died in a standoff with police a few days after the bombing, were responsible for this unspeakable crime.  On Friday, May 15, 2015, an emotional trial came to an end when a federal jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death for six out of seventeen capital counts relating to the second pressure-cooker bomb.

Catching The Suspect 

Two days after the tragedy, investigators caught a break revealing surveillance of two suspects, “white hat” and “black hat,” they believed were responsible for the bombs.  That same night, at 10:30 p.m., the two brothers struck again when a campus police officer at MIT was shot to death as the two brothers tried to take his gun.  The two brothers continued their crime spree when they hijacked a SUV.  Hours later a gun battle broke out, which ultimately resulted in Tamerlan’s death and Dzhokhar’s escape.  After officially locking down the city of Boston, Dzhokhar was arrested the next day when officials found him hiding in a boat.

Life in Prison or A Death Sentence?

In July 2013, Tsarnaev pled not guilty.  In March 2015, two years after the tragedy, the trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began simply with “it was him.”  The defense argued throughout the entire case for Tsarnaev to receive life in prison.  The defense tried to persuade the jury that Tsarnaev was acting under the influence of his older brother, who was the mastermind behind the bombs.  The jurors did not believe this defense, and in fact, only three out of twelve jurors felt that Tsarnaev had acted under his brother’s influence.

The jury deliberated for eleven hours and found Tsarnaev guilty of all thirty charges against him relating to the bombings and the murder of the MIT police officer.  After the verdict, the jury spent fourteen hours over three days deliberating the sentence for Tsarnaev—life in prison or the death penalty.  Ultimately, Tsarnaev received the death penalty.

How the Jury Decided to Sentence Tsarnaev to Death 

First and foremost, the jurors had to agree that Tsarnaev was eighteen at the time of the bombings in order for him to have the potential of receiving a federal death sentence. Once the age was agreed upon, jurors had to decide if the government proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt—the standard for a federal criminal case.  Only if all twelve jurors unanimously agreed, Tsarnaev would be sentenced to death.

“The choice between these very serious alternatives is yours, and yours alone, to make,” were the words the jurors received before deliberation by U.S. District Court Judge George O’Toole.  Jurors were instructed to consider two different sets of factors in deciding Tsarnaev’s fate.  First, the jurors had to consider aggravating factors—facts or conditions that make Tsarnaev more liable—and therefore anything that could support the harsher of the two outcomes, the death sentence.  These factors included the eight-year-old victim who was killed from the bombings.  Second, the jurors had to consider mitigating factors—facts or circumstances that reduce Tsarnaev’s culpability—which would support only giving Tsarnaev life in prison.  Mitigating factors in this case included Tsarnaev’s youth and the argument that he was under the influence of his brother.  Defense attorney, Judy Clarke, tried to keep the focus on Tsarnaev’s older brother, describing Tamerlan as his father figure and the “sole source of family, support, and strength.”  However, the jury did not quite buy Clarke’s argument, as the ultimately decided to punish Tsarnaev with the full force of the law—death row.

Boston’s Reaction

In order to sit on the jury for this case, one had to be “death qualified.”  This means that the person must be willing to impose a death sentence in order to serve their civic duty.  With this qualification, citizens of Massachusetts felt that the jury did not reflect a true representation of the state.

Massachusetts is a no death penalty state for state crimes which is why Tsarnaev’s death sentence is so unusual for a case being prosecuted within its state lines.  In fact, polls were taken throughout the trial demonstrating that the majority of residents favored life in prison over death.  In a more recent poll for The Boston Globe, only fifteen percent of the city residents wanted Tsarnaev executed.  Statewide, only nineteen percent wanted a death sentence.  In stark contrast, sixty percent of America wanted to see him get the death penalty.  Fear spread through the state that if Tsarnaev received a death sentence, he would be seen as “a martyr,” as if the horrible crimes Tsarnaev committed were some great sacrifice.

In reality, the majority of Boston feels that life in prison would be a fate far worse than death.  Citizens reacted with statements such as, “they [should] demonstrate a little humanity,” “killing a teenager’s not going to do anything,” and “should we react to murder with murder?”  The parents of Martin, the eight-year-old who was killed by one of the bombs made an open plea to the court asking them to drop the pursuit of the death penalty and just send Tsarnaev to prison.  Another citizen even stated that Tsarnaev needed to “[s]uffer some. Death is too easy.”

In contrast, some survivors felt like a weight was lifted off of their shoulders with this sentence.  For instance, Sydney Corcoran, who suffered wounds from the bombs, said that she and her mom received justice.  Other survivors felt like they could take a deep breath and start to move on from this tragedy.

What is Next for Tsarnaev?

Even though Tsarnaev received the death penalty, if the execution does ever occur, it will not happen for decades.  A sentence to death gives Tsarnaev an automatic appeal.  In today’s world the appeals process for federal executions is a lengthy process which likely means Tsarnaev’s sentence will be ironic rather than certain.  Out of the eighty federal defendants on death row, only three have been executed since 1988.  Defendants have either died, committed suicide, or their case is still tied up on appeal.

On appeal, Tsarnaev’s attorneys will most likely focus on the fact that the judge refused to move the trial out of Boston.  In a criminal case, the defense can move for a change of venue—moving the case to another county within the state where the crime occurred. In requesting a change in venue, the defense attorney has to show that it is reasonably unlikely receive a fair trial—which is a constitutional right—and the most common reason is due to pretrial publicity.

Tsarnaev’s attorneys argued that too many people in Boston had a personal connection to the trial thus making it extremely difficult to sit an impartial jury.  However, Judge Toole rejected all four change-of-venue motions, and a federal appeals court backed his rejections.  Tsarnaev’s attorneys may also argue that the judge allowed too many witnesses and victims who were hurt from the bombs to testify in front of the jury and describe the traumatic experience.  The graphic testimony had the potential of clouding the judgment of the jury, and therefore causing Tsarnaev to not receive a fair trial.

In addition to the change-of-venue and testimony arguments, the attorneys could raise the issue that the judge refused to tell the jurors that if they were unable to reach a unanimous decision on death, a sentence of life in prison would automatically be imposed on Tsarnaev.  With this instruction, jurors do not feel the pressure to just “go with the flow” because they think it will cause a new trial.

No matter what Tsarnaev’s attorneys decide to argue on appeal, it will be years before it is ever heard in court.  Until then, America will have to wait and see where the Federal Bureau of Prisons decides to send Tsarnaev to wait out the lengthy appeals process.

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About Danielle Feller, Associate Editor (16 Articles)
Danielle Feller is a 2016 graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a degree in Political Science with a concentration in Law and Justice and a minor in Business Administration. Following her first year of law school, Danielle interned at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office in the Felony Unit. Following her second year of law school, Danielle interned at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Danielle is also worked as Professor Bobbi Jo Boyd's research assistant during her third year of law school.
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