The parents of an eight-year-old killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing asked federal prosecutors to stop pursuing the death penalty for convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if it would bring the trial to a speedier conclusion.
Bill and Denise Richard told the Boston Globe that they would like to get closure in the trial instead of dealing with a lengthy appeals process, which can take decades for death penalty cases:
We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal.
We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. 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. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.
The Richards are correct that death penalty cases can take a long time to settle in court. The appeals process is so long for death penalty cases — since states want to ensure the verdict is correct when making a decision to end someone's life — that it typically costs more money to execute someone than to put them in prison for life, according to an Associated Press investigation. "It's 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive," Donald McCartin, a former California jurist known as "the Hanging Judge of Orange County" for sending nine men to death row, told the AP.
The Richards' position aligns with public opinion in Boston, where the bombing took place. Although a Gallup poll last year found 63 percent of Americans support the death penalty, a Boston Globe poll in 2013 found 57 percent of Boston residents favor a life sentence for Tsarnaev, compared with 33 percent who said he should get death. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and the Boston Globe editorial board also called on the jury to spare Tsarnaev the death penalty.
Tsarnaev's trial has always been about whether he should be executed
There was always very little doubt that Tsarnaev would be found guilty of the bombing, due to the overwhelming evidence against him, including video and an incriminating letter written by Tsarnaev himself. At the beginning of the trial, Tsarnaev's attorney, Judy Clarke, declared, "It was him."
The case, instead, has always focused on whether Tsarnaev should get the death penalty for the bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others.
Federal prosecutors are seeking the death sentence for Tsarnaev, making his trial a rare example of a federal death penalty case. The death penalty is banned in Massachusetts, but Tsarnaev's case has fallen under federal jurisdiction, which allows capital punishment.
Last year, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, who personally opposes the death penalty, authorized prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in the Tsarnaev case, the New York Times reported. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz argued in court filings that the death penalty was justified because, among several reasons, Dzhokhar had used a weapon of mass destruction — the bomb at the Boston marathon — and shown no remorse for his actions.
The trial is taking place in two phases. The first phase found Dzhokhar guilty of 30 charges stemming from the bombing. The second, which will begin now that he's been deemed guilty, will decide his sentence. Those decisions could be appealed to higher courts, as is particularly common with death penalty trials.
Clarke, Tsarnaev's attorney, has made a career out of preventing executions of high-profile criminals, including the Unabomber and Jared Loughner, who killed six when he attempted to assassinate former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in 2011. Throughout the trial, she characterized Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing and held no criminal record, as manipulated into the attack by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his older brother — a strategy focused on reducing his sentence.
"It matters because we are entitled to know the full picture," Clarke said in her closing comments, according to the Times. "We don't deny that Jahar fully participated in the events," she said, using Dzhokhar's nickname, "but if not for Tamerlan, it would not have happened."