Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on Friday, and it might seem surprising that a 21-year-old defendant received that sentence in a state that has ruled execution unconstitutional.
However, the federal government — which was prosecuting the case — has not deemed the death penalty illegal. Moreover, prosecutors pursuing capital cases won’t allow jurors who oppose the death penalty.
“The jury was … ‘rigged’ in favour of the death penalty. In death penalty cases, lawyers are allowed to dismiss any juror who is opposed to the death penalty,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler told Business Insider in an email message.
If jurors favour the death penalty in some cases, then it shouldn’t be shocking that they’d vote for it in a case where the defendant terrorised an entire city and killed and maimed innocent civilians.
“Tsarnaev’s death penalty sentence should come as no surprise,” Winkler said. “Few crimes are more detestable than terrorism, which intentionally murders innocent civilians to make a political statement.”
However, Winkler said, “A true representative jury in Massachusetts might well have imposed a different sentence.”
Indeed, the parents of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old killed by Tsarnaev and his brother, wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe asking the federal government to take the death penalty off the table. From that op-ed:
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.
Nationwide, support for capital punishment has dwindled in recent years. Support peaked in 1994 with 80% supporting it but dropped to 60% by 2013, according to Gallup. This shift in public opinion has narrowed the pool of acceptable jurors in capital cases, NPR’s Emily Green has reported.
These pro-death penalty jurors also tend to share opinions on other matters, University of Miami law professor Scott Sundby told Green.
“And the jurors who say that they could impose the death penalty are often attitudinally much more pro-prosecution,” Sundby said. “They are much more likely to believe police officers are telling the truth. They are more pro-government in their attitudes.”
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