Death Penalty for Tsarnaev?

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted by an impartial jury of 12 locals wearing “Boston Strong” T-shirts. Now they are deciding what to do with him.

This is a tough question because we’ve amped up the sentences for ordinary crimes so much that we don’t have anything special left for those who commit especially bad crimes. If someone can get life in prison for killing one person or, in some states, simply being convicted of multiple lesser crimes, what to do with someone who killed and maimed so many people, shut down a city, etc.?

I observed a Facebook exchange in which one guy pointed out that it was going to be costly to keep Tsarnaev in prison potentially for 80 additional years (the jihadi is currently just 21 years old) and pay for exotic medical procedures towards the end of his life, explaining that it cost even more to deliver U.S.-style medicine in prison than it does in civilian hospitals. A friend pointed out that the death penalty would be vastly more expensive than imprisonment. Although economics does not seem like the right way to evaluate these alternatives, I became curious. Back in 2012 the cost of federal imprisonment was $ 34,000 per year (source) so let’s say that it is $ 45,000 today (adjust for inflation and for the fact that pension costs are invariably understated in public accounting; with accurate accounting California prison guards earn more than Harvard graduates). So it will be $ 3.6 million to keep Tsarnaev in prison for 80 years plus perhaps another $ 2 million in medical costs = $ 5.6 million total.

What does it cost to execute someone? Missouri is a state that regularly executes its unwanted citizens. This article on the recent execution of Andre Cole says that it took roughly 16 years from crime to death (back in 1995, Cole’s wife decided to get rid of him but keep the house, the kids, and a portion of his paycheck; in 1998, having fallen behind on child support payments and being pursued by the $ 6 billion federal/state child support enforcement bureaucracy, Cole injured the plaintiff and killed her boyfriend; he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury).  Let’s assume that 16-year period is typical. The Marathon bombing was in 2013 so it would cost the government another 14 years of imprisonment ($ 630,000) plus legal fees on both sides of the case. This anti-death penalty group says that legal costs are between $ 2 and $ 3 million, depending on the state.

It therefore seems that it would in fact be cheaper to execute Tsarnaev. Would it be fair, though?

One argument against the death penalty is that the government often makes mistakes, thus executing people who did not commit the crimes with which they were charged. “You wouldn’t want the workers at the DMV making life or death decisions,” a friend noted. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of doubt regarding Tsarnaev’s involvement in the Marathon bombings, however.

An argument against executing Mr. Tsarnaev is that the entire family was open regarding their desire to wage jihad. In fact that was their reason for asking for and receiving fast-track citizenship: the Russian government was unsympathetic to their struggle against infidels. We kept the red carpet rolled out despite various family members’ strings of lesser crimes and despite being warned by the Russian government that the  older brother was an active jihadi. How is it fair to execute someone who did what he said that he was going to do? If we didn’t want him to carry out jihad in Boston we didn’t have to grant him citizenship, give the brothers free housing in Cambridge, etc.

What do readers think? Consistent with what the American criminal justice system can actually do, what is the fairest sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

[Personally I am against the death penalty for Mr. Tsarnaev following the trial that he actually had. I think that trying him in downtown Boston, despite the elaborate procedures, pomp, and circumstance, cannot qualify as systematized justice. Given the outrage that Americans felt regarding the bombings, in order to preserve the pretense of bureaucratized justice, I think we should have asked a Canadian judge and jury to hear the case and be bound by their decision. Separately, I think that keeping Tsarnaev around is a good reminder of the consequences of our hubris in thinking that our FBI was better positioned to evaluate Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s plans than were the Russian security forces (we couldn’t even figure out that Tamerlan was involved in the 2011 Waltham murders).]

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *