Justice yet to be served as Boston Marathon approaches


The 126th Boston Marathon is set to take place on Monday. As the race approaches, a separate race against time occurs as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attempts to avoid the death penalty. Photo credit Marta Hill.

Greta Magendantz, news correspondent

The 126th Boston Marathon is set to take place on Monday. As the race approaches, a separate race against time occurs as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attempts to avoid the death penalty. 

In 2015, a jury found Tsarnaev guilty of 30 terrorism-related charges for perpetrating a series of bombings near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013 which killed three and injured hundreds more. He was sentenced to death for six of his charges

While Massachusetts outlawed the death penalty in 1984, Tsarnev could still be executed for crimes he committed in the state’s capitol because he was tried in a federal court.

Rachel Otty, a history teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, spoke about her personal feelings regarding the case.

Otty said she taught both Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was also deemed responsible in the 2013 attacks but died in a shootout with police days afterward.

She remembered Dzhokhar as friendly and popular, although not particularly eager to participate in class. 

Otty does not believe that her former student should face execution for his crimes. 

I am against capital punishment,” Otty said. “It is cruel and unusual for the state to carry out murder.”

Some psychological experts agree. 

“‘Cruel and unusual’ is supposed to be a standard that evolves as society evolves,” said Rena Isen, forensic psychologist for the state of Tennessee. “Nelson Mandela said, ‘A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’ What does the death penalty say about our society?”

Academic experts on the subject cite the reasons for its use. When asked if he considered the death penalty “cruel and unusual,” Case Western Reserve University instructor in law, Michael Benza, spoke on the outside factors that typically influence execution verdicts. 

Our long and often unfortunate history of capital punishment, as well as our modern experience, demonstrates that our use of the death penalty is often based more on the issues of race, poverty and the issues of Constitutional errors than on the merits of the case,” Benza said.

In one of the multiple appeals filed in an attempt to temporarily suspend Tsarnaev’s execution, his lawyers accused prosecutors of “courting Islamophobia” in 2019, among other alleged issues of bias. Ultimately, the First Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Tsarnev’s death sentence in 2020 due to the “unprecedented amount of media coverage,” that his crimes and case received. 

Isen said she believes that considering capital punishment on a case-by-case basis is the right way to go about sentencing. However, she noted the issues that arise when the laws surrounding the death penalty have flexibility. 

When we don’t have clearly defined sentencing laws, it is imperative that we have measures to prevent bias from impacting sentencing,” Isen said. “Otherwise, we will continue to disproportionately impose the death penalty on certain groups.”

Benza said he believes that many of the convicts on death row fall into common categories. 

Typically those facing capital cases are poor, minority, disenfranchised from society, usually suffer from forms of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and come from extremely traumatic backgrounds,” Benza said. “But each person on death row is an individual who has his or her own unique history.”

In early March, the Supreme Court of the United States reinstated Tsarnaev’s death penalty. Subsequently, another appeal was filed April 7 with the First Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to consider four constitutional claims.

Benza clarifies that the use of capital punishment in this case does not reflect any permanent change in Massachusetts’ state legislation. 

The death penalty was not brought back in Massachusetts,” Benza said. “Rather, Tsarnaev was tried in federal court under a federal death penalty indictment.”

Possible punishments for Tsarnaev include the death penalty and a lifetime in prison based upon arguments made in federal appeals court. 

Isen says that a life-long prison sentence might be just as severe of a punishment as the death penalty.

Having worked in multiple prisons, I believe that a life sentence can be more severe,” Isen said. “Regardless of the conditions, being imprisoned is incredibly demoralizing and dehumanizing.”

Isen also said that the attitudes that inmates themselves have towards the death penalty, as opposed to a life sentence, vary. 

She does believe that some convicts can benefit from the second chance a life sentence has to offer. 

“I have known many inmates serving life sentences who have turned their lives around and found ways to be productive members of society while in prison,” Isen said. “They often see it as their life’s mission to help others avoid the same mistakes, and they become a mentor to other inmates.”

Dzhokhar’s older brother has been considered a key influence regarding the acts they committed together at the Boston Marathon in 2013. 

His former teacher thinks back to “struggles and challenges [Tsarnaev] was facing at home, with his brother, and his own evolving views on political issues,” which she said she believes are deeply connected to the acts he committed. 

What she did not recall was observing any especially concerning behaviors from the teenager, who would later perpetrate terroristic acts, during her time as his teacher.

So often, we expect to see red flags or indications of some sort of ‘evil’ when people do bad things,” Otty said. “But much of what may have impacted his decision to commit crimes were factors that were not apparent on the surface to his teachers and even many friends.”