It’s not clear what impact the testimony of Sister Helen Prejean will have on the trial of Boston Marathon terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The celebrated death penalty opponent was the star witness for the defense in the death penalty phase of the trial of Tsarnaev who has already been convicted for his role in the 2013 attack in which three people were killed and 264 wounded, included 17 who lost limbs. The Catholic nun, who was immortalized in the film Dead Man Walking, claimed that the murderer expressed regret to her for his crime. The defense hopes this will influence the jury to turn down the government’s request that Tsarnaev be executed. But while it is possible to mount a coherent argument against the morality of the death penalty, it is to be hoped that at least in this case, the jury will reject the notion that this sort of ex post facto remorse manufactured for their benefit, ought to be enough to save Tsarnaev from paying the ultimate price for his savage crime.
The imposition of the death penalty has come under increasing attack in recent years on the basis of two formidable arguments.
One holds that in far too many cases convictions are obtained on faulty or misleading evidence. Eyewitnesses can often be mistaken and with the widespread use of DNA evidence, many cases that were predicated on such testimony are found to be mistakes. Police and prosecutorial misconduct has always been held responsible for wrongful convictions. With so many doubtful murder cases leading to convictions, it is reasonable to say that the death penalty should never be handed out if there is a chance that new evidence will eventually vindicate the accused.
Second, in some states there has been a pattern of sentencing that showed minorities were more likely to be given death sentences than whites. The claim of bias should not be confused with proof that a sentence is unjust or a mistake. But so long as prejudice can be proven to be a factor in the discretion afforded judges and juries in the handing down of capital punishment, it is also reasonable to view the practice with some alarm.
But neither of these concerns can have any impact on the Tsarnaev case. There is no doubt about his guilt, a factor that influenced his defense not to waste any time trying to confuse that issue during the first phase of the trial. In addition to voluminous other evidence, there is a video of the younger of the two terrorist brothers that committed this terrible crime leaving the bomb near spectators at the marathon finish line.
Nor can it be asserted with the least credibility that a death penalty in this case is the result of prejudice against immigrants or Muslims. The marathon bombing is one of the most notorious terrorist incidents in recent American history. Tsarnaev was not singled out for punishment. Rather, he and his brother sought to kill and maim the maximum number of persons in the most flamboyant manner possible so as to elevate their deed into an act of epic slaughter.
Nor was this a crime of passion. The cold-blooded depravity involved in assembling a bomb whose purpose is to shred flesh rather than merely explode cries out for the sternest possible punishment. That the younger Tsarnaev placed in the vicinity of families of spectators including small children also illustrates the depth of his criminal intent and lack of compassion for his victims.
That much is obvious even to those who haven’t followed the case closely. But what should also be understood is that the Tsarnaev bothers intended their crime to serve a political purpose. They wanted to kill Americans in revenge for America’s supposed sins against the Muslim world. While this premise is a canard, the brothers were influenced by their Islamist faith that according to their interpretation mandated that they kill in the name of their religion.
That is why Prejean’s talk of Tsarnaev’s remorse is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether this killer should be given the death penalty.
Despite the defense’s weak attempt to blame a crime in which both Tsarnaev’s were active participants, on the older brother who was killed in a subsequent shootout with police, there is no reason to believe he was any more or less fanatical than his sibling. Both demonstrated malice and a desire to kill and maim and to do so in order to send Americans a message of fear.
If his talk of remorse is genuine that may have some theological significance in terms of the punishment the killer might get in the hereafter. But that is a decision best left in the hand of our Creator who knows more about what is in Tsarnaev’s heart than Prejean, whose sole goal is to ban executions, not hand out justice.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not only a poster child for the death penalty; his case is proof that there are some crimes for which it is the only possible just penalty. If he is sorry now it is because he is faced with the price of his attempt at Islamist glory and may now think that being a martyr isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Even if the jurors reject Prejean’s stunt, it will take many years for all the appeals in this case to be exhausted. But it is to be hoped that eventually Tsarnaev is finally made to pay for his cruelty with his life. It may not deter future Islamist terrorists who may hope for death anyway. A society governed by laws may always show mercy but kindness of this sort to someone so cruel makes a mockery of justice. Anything less than death for what the Tsarnaev’s did undermines faith in the law and the ability of civilization to defend itself against religious barbarians.