Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sentence comes as attitudes shift on the death penalty

Attitudes are shifting about the death penalty – because of beliefs about revenge killing by the state, as well as legal and logistical issues, including botched executions and cases in which individuals have been found innocent. 

Stephan Savoia/AP
Liz Norden talks about how she watches her two sons put on prosthetic legs every day as she is consoled by first responder Mike Ward after the death penalty verdict for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev outside the federal courthouse Friday in Boston.

That convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received the death penalty may not be surprising.

Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but Tsarnaev’s crimes were federal offenses – the US government can execute prisoners – and only jurors who agreed not to rule out that possibility in his case were allowed to serve. Defense attorneys did the best they could to prevent his being legally killed, but Tsarnaev himself had shown no remorse for a horrific attack that killed 3 people and injured more than 260.

But public attitudes and state policies have been shifting in significant ways regarding the death penalty – some of that because of personal beliefs about what critics see as revenge killing by the state, but also because of legal issues and logistical difficulties, including botched executions involving drugs exceedingly difficult to obtain and the continuing string of cases in which individuals long-imprisoned have been found to be innocent.

According to Gallup, most American favor the death penalty (63-33 percent). But the number drops significantly – 50-45 percent approval – when respondents are given the choice of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (the jurors’ other choice in the Tsarnaev case).

A Pew Research Center poll, taken six months after Gallup’s, found a narrower split between death penalty supporters and opponents (56-38 percent). “Support for the death penalty is as low as it has been in the past 40 years,” Pew reported last month.

Also indicating a potential change of heart, Pew found, 71 percent say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, 61 percent say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, and about half (52 percent) say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.

For a variety of reasons, imposition of the death penalty is dropping in Texas – the state that usually tops the list in executions. Executions there peaked at 40 in 2000; last year there were 10.

“There is no doubt about it. We’re seeing a reduction in the use of the death penalty in Texas,” Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, told the Dallas Morning News. “Here it is May, and we have had only two death penalty cases in Texas. And in both, the jury chose life without parole instead. That strikes me as really significant.”

In Georgia this week, Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, where he voted to uphold the death penalty, called state-sanctioned executions “morally indefensible.”

“With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Judge Fletcher said.

Also in Georgia, David Burge, who chairs Georgia's 5th Congressional District Republican Party, wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system."

Calling the death penalty "plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste,” Mr. Burge wrote, "Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program."

In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty, saying in a statement: “If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”

Gov. Wolf is a Democrat, but this question of “fallibility” and the death penalty increasingly is being raised by those on the right as well.

In the conservative Washington Times recently, editorial writer Drew Johnson observed that “more and more lawmakers, scholars and pundits on the right side of the aisle now recognize that it’s bad policy to give an all-too-fallible government the power to execute its own citizens.”

“Nationally, a diverse collection of conservative leaders – including Dr. Robert George, pro-life advocate Abby Johnson, Dr. Ron Paul, Richard Viguerie and others – all have voiced their opposition to the death penalty,” writes Mr. Johnson. “Most recently, the former Republican Attorney General of Virginia, Mark Earley, changed his mind and said that he no longer has faith in the government to implement the death penalty.”
The legislature in Nebraska recently voted to replace the death penalty with life without parole. The vote was 30 to 13. Most Republicans (17 out of 30) joined Democrats in approving the bill.

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