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Death penalty for Tsarnaev? Why Bostonians don't favor that possibility. (+video)

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is charged with one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in US history, yet in the city where the bombings occurred, a unique mix of factors means that most residents don’t want to put him to death.

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    A Newton, Mass., firefighter carried a US flag down Boylston Street in Boston a week after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
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Nearly two years after two bombs upended the Boston Marathon, sending reverberations of grief and fear throughout the city, accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is scheduled to face a jury of his peers and answer to 30 federal charges.

To many Americans, the bombings represented not just an attack on one city, but a broader assault on the nation and its values. And a nationwide poll done by The Washington Post and ABC News soon after the attacks found that Americans overwhelmingly supported the death penalty being an option in the case against Mr. Tsarnaev.

The following January, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would indeed seek the death penalty.

Although such a request is not unusual in terrorism cases, it is highly unusual in Massachusetts, where no prisoner has been put to death in more than 60 years.

And Bostonians, it seems, are not so eager to make an exception in the Tsarnaev case. According to a Boston Globe poll conducted in September 2013, one-third of city residents supported the death penalty in the case, while more than half of the respondents said they would prefer a sentence of life without parole.

How has Boston come to view the death penalty differently from the rest of the nation – even in the event of a terrorist attack in the city? Experts cite political and religious currents, as well as the long history of choosing another way.

“Massachusetts as a commonwealth has a basic commitment to civic virtues, to decency. These are deep, deep, deep in our soil,” says the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister at Boston’s historic Old South Church, which stands next to the marathon’s finish line. “The death penalty kind of defiles the best of what it is to be virtuous in a civic sense. It kind of starts to wreck the equation.”

The Tsarnaev trial is scheduled to begin in Boston on Jan. 5, after a judge on New Year's Eve ruled against motions by the defense to delay the start of the trial and move it outside of Boston.

Boston is one of the most liberal cities in the United States, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than 3 to 1. Traditionally, liberal Democrats have been much more likely to oppose the death penalty than their more conservative Republican counterparts.

In addition, nearly half of state residents identify as Roman Catholic, making Massachusetts the most Catholic state in the nation. Although Bay Staters do not attend church at the level seen in other parts of the country, religion plays a key role in how individuals shape their values.

“There is certainly religion constantly in the background,” Ms. Taylor says. She points to the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” as a religious principle that has become a central tenet of secular society.

Beyond such moral objections, many area residents question the efficacy of the death penalty as a punishment.

“I just think that’s kind of the easy way out,” says Hannah Braunstein, a kindergarten teacher in Waltham who ran in the 2013 marathon and had to stop less than a mile from the finish line because of the blasts. “I think it’s very important that he literally wastes his life away.”

There are, of course, those in Boston who see capital punishment as warranted in this instance.

“I think in some cases the death penalty is acceptable,” says Briana Paparozzi, a graphic design student at Boston University. She has a hard time defining exactly where the line lies, but says that the large number of people affected by the bombings and the apparent motive of terrorizing a city make her ready to condone execution in this case.

Christopher Dearborn, an associate law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, explains why Americans overall are supportive of the death penalty in the Tsarnaev trial.

“We’re talking about people dying in domestic terrorism,” Professor Dearborn says. “It doesn’t get any more serious in the eyes of the general public.”

No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947, and the state formally abolished the death penalty in 1984. However, the Tsarnaev case falls under federal jurisdiction, thus opening the door to the death penalty.

Since 1984, there have been numerous attempts to reinstate capital punishment at the state level in Massachusetts. It came the closest to doing so in 1997, following the disturbing murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley. A bill that would have brought back the death penalty failed to pass by one vote.

The boy’s father, Robert Curley, supported the bill but later changed his position because of what he saw as systemic biases in the legal system penalizing poor and minority offenders.

In a Monitor interview, Mr. Curley talked about the possibility of the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case. It would be “better to just give him life without parole and forget about it,” he said, instead of going through a lengthy appeals process in the event of a death sentence.

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