April 15, 2013, started out as a perfectly lovely day in Boston. At 48 degrees, it was hardly warm, but it was sunny enough to take the edge off. Sitting at Fenway Park with friends, it was chilly but more than comfortable enough to stay and watch the future World Series champion Boston Red Sox take out the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The game that day featured a surprising pitchers’ duel between Ryan Dempster and Jeremy Hellickson, finally ended by a Mike Napoli walk-off double. It was an amazing game, and it showed hints that the Red Sox might actually be a special team that year, rather than repeating the horrendous 2012 season.
After leaving Fenway, we made our way through the throngs of people in the direction of the finish line. We decided to stop and eat at the Cheesecake Factory, and that’s where we were when Dzhokar Tsarnaev unleashed his evil upon the city of Boston. At first, of course, we had no idea what had happened a mere half-mile away. We were told via a loudspeaker that there had been criminal activity on Boylston Street and to shelter in place. Soon, though, we learned of the explosions near the finish line, and it didn’t take long after that to discover it wasn’t an accident.
All of this is to say that I am no unbiased observer in this matter. I have a stake in the outcome; that day was the closest I have ever been to a terror attack. That being said, I am generally a death penalty opponent, for a variety of reasons. As a public policy, study after study shows that it does little to deter crime more than life imprisonment. Due to the lengthy appeals process, it is more often in effect a very expensive version of life in prison, so it is not fiscally responsible. There is no doubt that the death penalty ought to be applied far more rarely in this country than it currently is.
However, in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, this punishment is completely appropriate. First and foremost, there is no question of guilt here. The abundance of evidence is far, far more than the prosecution needs to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a (let alone reasonable) doubt. Indeed, Tsarnaev’s own attorneys essentially admitted this from the first day of the trial, focusing their efforts on avoiding the death penalty rather than a guilty verdict.
Moreover, the heinous nature of his crimes fits this punishment. Tsarnaev not only murdered three people on Patriots’ Day, he maimed dozens of others and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier three days later. It is only thanks to a combination of luck and the ready availability of some of the world’s best hospitals that more innocent lives weren’t taken that day. The attacks and subsequent manhunt put Boston in a siege mentality for days, truly displaying the definition of terrorism for all the world to see.
There are also national security issues to consider in this case. If Tsarnaev is imprisoned for decades — rather than executed as promptly as allowed by law — he could become a cause celeb for terrorists the world over. Americans could be taken hostage, with Tsarnaev’s release as one of their demands. Future lives could be risked by failing to act appropriately here.
The claims of many critics of the death penalty in America are true: It is applied too often, too indiscriminately, and is often more expensive than life imprisonment. However, none of those arguments apply here, in a case where highly competent federal prosecutors proved a man guilty of the most heinous of crimes. This is the type of case for which we have the death penalty.