It isn’t often that we openly cheer the prospect of someone’s death. Yet recent news that Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will face the death penalty in his upcoming trial was met with relief, excitement, and even open jubilation. The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that Tsarnaev deserves to die for the crimes that he has committed. Such feelings are understandable; Tsarnaev is responsible for acts of terror that killed three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and wounded numerous others.
Yet I was shocked to hear of the Justice Department’s willingness to take such drastic actions in a case that has the ability to shape public sentiment about the continued use of the death penalty in the United States. Since its reinstatement in 1976, the death penalty has become more obviously a failed experiment.
Problems of inadequate representation for capital defendants, racial biases among juries, and a growing number of exonerations from DNA evidence have brought to light the inadequacies of the system we rely on to determine questions of life and death. In an era where the acceptability of the death penalty is waning, the decision to seek a death sentence in the Tsarnaev case sets a dangerous precedent and allows for the continuation of death penalty practices in a nation where its use seems increasingly antiquated, ineffective, and problematic.
Let’s face facts. According to the Death Penalty Info Center, a site devoted to death penalty information, the United States is the only Western nation that continues to utilize the death penalty and carry out executions. Other nations continuing to do so include Pakistan, Iran, and China, where citizens can be put to death for anything from minor drug offenses to blasphemy. These are nations, we should remember, whose governments the U.S. often chides for restricting individual freedoms and maintaining control over their citizens through centralized force. If the U.S. is to be judged by the company that it keeps, it isn’t doing too well.
However, the use of the death penalty is in decline in the U.S. Limits on the the ability of states to procure the drugs that are used in executions have severely curtailed the number of people who have been executed across the nation and even convinced some states to get rid of the death penalty altogether. Maryland, Connecticut, and New Mexico all decided to get rid of their death penalty statutes (in 2013, 2012, and 2009 respectively) in large part due to an inability to guarantee that executions could be performed in a “non-cruel” manner, given their lack of execution drugs.
As Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker notes in his article “Cruel and Unusual,” many states have now switched from a three-drug cocktail to a single-drug cocktail, or even turned to “compounding pharmacies” (underground drug manufacturers unregulated by the FDA) in order to continue executions. While fewer states are putting people to death, the executions that are still taking place are increasingly grotesque. As Ed Pilkington of The Guardian notes, the execution of Ohioan Mark McGuire last month with a previously untested two-drug cocktail took almost half an hour and left him “gasping for air for up to 14 minutes.”
So, there now exists a small minority of states and counties in the U.S. that carry out a majority of the nation’s executions. Harris County, where Houston is located, executed more people between 1979 and 2003 than all other U.S. states (excluding Texas) combined. This is a startling fact, as there certainly isn’t a higher prevalence of heinous crime in Harris County than in the rest of the U.S. combined. And it seems to problematize the argument that the death penalty is reserved for only certain extraordinary circumstances. This notion is incorrect; in fact, most of the time it is being applied in a highly arbitrary manner.
Now let’s turn back to Tsarnaev and my confusion over the Justice Department’s recent decision. Is it trying to placate angry Bostonians? Well, as it turns out, according to a Boston Globe poll, only 33 percent of Massachusetts residents support a death sentence for Dzhokhar. Is it taking the stance that all terrorists deserve to be put to death? Keep in mind that Dzhokhar was 19 at the time of the bombing—only one year older then the Supreme Court mandated age of eligibility for a death sentence—and was led on by what seems to have been a vindictive and controlling older brother. If this is the case where the feds have decided to take a stand on terrorism, what does it mean for the prosecution of juveniles across the nation?
While the Justice Department’s decision to seek death in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lacks logic, the most deleterious result of this conclusion is that it lends credibility to a failed and unpopular national policy. Is anyone else outraged? I hope so.
Lipton is a member of the class of 2016.