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.

  • Howard Sachs

    Thanks for your fine words. Many of us outside campus are interested in what our young people are thinking. I understand your points but disagree profoundly. The death penalty to millions of us elevates and dignifies life and our great American culture. It does this by sending a clear strong message, the message being we value life tremendously, so much so that if you take a life, you must forfeit yours. Morality cannot be guided primarily by our hears. It has to be guided primarily by our minds and standards. Of course no one finds it pleasant killing another human. Our hearts tell us to avoid such messy nasty things. Our minds and our standards should overcome this. We should elevate ourselves and our civilization and say clearly how much we love and cherish life. We must say that for most murderers like the savage Tsarnaev that snuffed out life and burned and maimed and blinded and paralyzed others, we are not going to let you sit in prison and have lunch each day, and watch tv, and read,and joke around with your buddies, and get medical care. We are going to kill you, and yes that killing we will try to do in a way infinitely more gently than you did to your victims, but we will be strong Americans with good morals and do what needs to be done. We will take you life as justice demands, not as vengeance. That’s also why this commandment is the only one repeated in each of the first five books of the Old Testament,’The murderer shall be put to death’. It says this not because its fun or pleasant, but because thats what good , moral elevated American people do.

    • Gabe Lipton Galbraith

      Hi Howard,

      I first want to thank you for taking the time to respond to my op-ed. It is exactly such a conversation, about the merits of the continued use of the death penalty, that I hoped to spur when writing this piece.

      There are two points you make that stick out to me most profoundly. The first is that as a community our minds should prevail over our hearts. I agree with you on this but find problematic the conclusion you draw from it. As I point out in my piece, the death penalty is a punishment that isn’t applied based on the nature of someones crime. A report by The Dallas Morning News found that in Texas “nearly one in four condemned inmates [that is people sentenced to death] has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed lawyers who have been disciplined for professional misconduct in some point in their career.” The fact is, people with good lawyers don’t get the death penalty because they have investigatory resources and they aren’t procedurally barred from bringing up issues their lawyers didn’t mention initially on appeal.

      Which brings me two your second point, that we should “elevate the dignity of life.” Once again I would agree with you, but I would ask—what is dignified about arbitrarily sentencing people to death? The reality of continued calls for the use of the death penalty is that they hide vengeance in the cloak of justice. Yet any close examination of the issue shows these appeals to be exactly what you portrayed them not to be—appeals to the heart.

      Thanks for your thoughts,


      • Howard Sachs

        Thank you for your intelligent and very civilized response. Youre a good man.You raise some valid and
        important points I will think about them. Off the cuff may I respond.

        Legal Process: You
        argue that because the legal process may be weak or broken in some fashion we
        should abandon capitol punishment.

        I’d argue that we do not live
        in an ideal world and never will. We need to always seek to improve it. With that said, the likelihood of a
        murderer innocent of his crime being put to death is incredibly small in
        America. The tiny chance of executing an innocent for murder is part of the
        price we pay for in return receiving an elevated, dignified, civilized society-
        namely by saying clearly to our society, “We value life tremendously. If
        you take an innocent life, yours will be forfeited.” As with any law, as
        with any rights or obligations there are trade offs. By the way, I used to be a liberal Leftist. I am now a conservative. One of the deep problems with Leftism I see is that it rarely if ever asks, does it work? and what are the consequences? Conservatives ask it all the time by virtue of their ideology.

        Anyway, back to the issue. If you increase the speed limit
        on your highways, you are condemning more innocents to death in accidents.
        It’s part of the tradeoffs of life.

        May I also ask you if you
        think that guy Brevik in Norway that slaughtered 70 young people and shattered
        the lives of hundreds of friends and relatives and who received about 4-6 month
        jail sentence per murder. Do you think the Norwegians are really elevated by
        their action? They call themselves the most
        Progressive and civilized people. What do you think the dead 18 year old or his Mom or
        Dad or sister or brother think about that concept that 4-6 months in jail is equivalent to a snuffed
        out life? What do you think about the message you give to society is when a guy explodes the head of an innocent and then gets six months in a comfortable Norwegian Progressive prison for the act? To me the Norwegians actions are morally repulsive.

        Americans kill most
        murderers. They should. They are a good and kind and moral people for doing it. Thats one of 50 reasons Im proud to be an American in a very exceptional country.

        In summary: Work to get
        people more competent lawyers. Don’t work to destroy our moral system.

        My 2 cents: Howard Sachs/Wash DC

      • EGGM

        If Americans kill most murderers and should, would you agree that most of our government should receive the death penalty as well? It would only be fair, given that millions have died in Iraq and Afghanistan on the basis of a false flag attack on September 11th, coupled with bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction which were never found, and a myriad of other specious claims without merit.

        World Trade Center Building 7 was not hit by a plane and yet it fell down to the ground at free-fall speed. All three buildings collapsed in a manner identical to demolition. Wall Street Market activity indicates foreknowledge about the event within the financial community. Should the financiers of war not also receive the death penalty?

        Paramedic captain stated “somewhere around the middle of the world trade center there was this orange and red flash coming out initially it was just one flash then this flash just kept popping all the way around the building and that building had started to explode the popping sound and with each popping sound it was initially an orange and then red flash came out of the building and then it would just go all around the building on both sides as far as could see these popping sounds and the explosions were getting bigger going both up and down and then all around the building”

      • Howard Sachs

        Im sorry but Elvis is really dead. Thats all I can think of to say to your post. take care: HS

      • EGGM

        So the deaths of all those who died in those buildings is a joke to you?

        However, Mr. Chandler does explain how in Part 3 of his video, NIST Finally Admits Freefall, saying:[vi]

        “In the case of a falling building, the only way it can go into free fall is if an external force removes the supporting structure. None of the gravitational potential energy of the building is available for this purpose, or it would slow the fall of the building. The fact of free fall by itself is strong evidence of explosive demolition, but the evidence of explosive demolition is even stronger than that.”

        Mr. Chandler goes on to describe two particular attributes of Building 7’s free fall descent that make the evidence for explosive demolition even more overwhelming:

        “What is particularly striking is the suddenness of onset of free fall. Acceleration doesn’t build up gradually. The graph [measuring the building’s descent] simply turns a corner. The building went from full support to zero support instantly.”

      • Gabe Lipton Galbraith

        Let me point out briefly that you write, “The tiny chance of executing an innocent for murder is part of theprice we pay for in return receiving an elevated, dignified, civilized society,” and then continue immediately to say that, “We value life tremendously.” The crux of your argument is that the death penalty demonstrates our commitment to the value of life, but then you turn around to say mistakes made in the judicial system, even if infrequent, are acceptable. This is a contradictory argument continually made by proponents of the death penalty, and it shows that, as a society, we actually value the lives of some over others. Moreover, it demonstrates that arguments interpreting the death penalty as a valuation of life are spurious at best and, in fact, duplicitous.
        Thanks for your thoughts,

      • Howard Sachs

        Gabe: Im sorry..I do understand what youre saying I think. I think what youre saying is , look you can talk all you want about risks and rewards, but this is human life we are talking about. We just cant have this form of justice if there is one single innocent life lost due to a mistake. We’ll have to agree to disagree I guess. Your argument does nothing to move me from my position. Risks are inherent in almost any action we take in life. When you walk into a doctor and get vaccinated for an infectious disease, a certain number of Americans will die each year because of a reaction. Should we ban vaccines? 30000 innocent Americans are killed on the roads each year. Should we ban driving or lower the speed limit to 10mph? Evil people will be on earth forever. Should we ban war to rid the world of them because innocents die? These are rhetorical questions. All of us would like to live in a utopia where only bad guys get killed. We don’t live in such a place; never will. Take care. Im impressed with how you wrestle with such important issues.

      • Howard Sachs

        Thanks again for your response.

        1. arbitrary: Im sorry. I see nothing arbitrary in the standard
        even. A savage guy does an evil act like blows up some poor kid watching a race
        in Boston. Evidence is gathered. His lawyer tries to defend him. A jury
        convicts him. Then society kills him. To me it’s anything but arbitrary.

        2 “.hide vengence in
        the cloak of justice”: I disagree again. Society is not meting out
        vengeance to the murderer. It’s producing great justice. A mob jumping on the murdering low
        life in Boston and tearing him to shreds is dishing out vengeance. I honestly wouldn’t
        lose sleep over it personally, but I would have to then accept I wouldn’t be
        living in a just and elevated society if people did such things. There is a huge moral difference.
        That’s why we don’t let the mob or family member met out such punishment. It
        must come from the State. The state calmly speaks for us all, “We kill you
        today you evil man . We do not like doing this but as representatives of a
        strong, moral and just America , we must. You have been given a reasonable
        chance to defend yourself in our courts. Now with your death we claim loud and
        clear justice is done. Life is precious. You have stolen a life and you must
        now party repay with

      • EGGM


        1) If fire caused Building 7 to collapse, it would be the first ever fire-induced collapse of a steel-frame high-rise.

        2) Building 7’s collapse was not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.

        3) According to a Zogby poll in 2006, 43% of Americans did not know about Building 7.

        4) It took the federal government seven years to conduct an investigation and issue a report for Building 7.

        5) 1,700+ architects and engineers have signed a petition calling for a new investigation into the destruction of Building 7, specifying that it should include a full inquiry into the possible use of explosives.

        6) Numerous witnesses say the possibility of demolishing Building 7 was widely discussed by emergency personnel at the scene and advocated by the building’s owner.

        7) Building 7 housed several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the NYC Office of Emergency Management’s Emergency Operations Center, more commonly known as “Giuliani’s Bunker”.

      • Tribonian

        Enjoyed your piece, Gabe. For accuracy’s sake, I do think “alleged” and other qualifiers are in order until a verdict is in, but the substance stands. In the Tsarnaev case, the institutional/systemic issues with the death penalty (racial bias, geographic happenstance, ineffective assistance of counsel) do not seem apposite (caucasian in state with no death penalty). Those are valid arguments against capital punishment as applied in the aggregate but less compelling in a specific case, and especially so in one which appears to have a great deal of reliable evidence.

        To my mind, the arguments against a Tsarnaev execution upon a finding of guilt are 1) philosophical and 2) practical. There is the inherent hypocrisy of promoting life by ending it, regardless of due process concerns. On a practical level, execution would definitively end Tsarnaev’s earthly suffering and has the potential to create a martyr of a man who deserves less than a footnote.

        Just one person’s opinion.

  • Susan

    I note your lack of the words “alleged” or “suspected” in your opening paragraph describing Mr. Tsarnaev as “the Boston bomber”…”responsible for acts of terror”… To date, he has not been tried nor convicted in a court of law, but instead in the media – your opinion piece being a prime example of this.

    Shame on you. You are so quick to bypass due process in your rush to judgement based on what exactly – “Facts” based on leaks from “unnamed sources close to the investigation”?

    So far, all the public has heard is a one-sided account rife with inconsistencies, contradictions and obfuscation. I look forward to hearing Mr. Tsarnaev and his legal team’s side of this before passing judgement.

    • Howard Sachs

      Susan. With respect, often common sense must come into play. May I ask you. Do you describe John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald as the “alleged murderers of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy”?How about Mao? Is he the alleged mass murdering sadist tyrant of China?