Why more Boston Marathon survivors oppose the death penalty

A couple who each lost limbs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing have called for life in prison without parole for convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, echoing similar calls by other survivors. Their view reflects a growing unease about capital punishment in Boston and nationwide.

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters/File
Boston Marathon bombing survivors Patrick Downes (L) and Jessica Kensky cross the finish line at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Mass. April 21, 2014. The couple, who each lost limbs during the Marathon attack the year before, have called for life without parole instead of the death penalty for convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Two more survivors have spoken out against the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, who each lost limbs during the attack, have called for life in prison without parole for Mr. Tsarnaev, whose federal death penalty trial begins Tuesday, The Boston Globe reported. The couple’s words echo those of Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was killed during the bombing, and reflects a broader shift in attitudes about capital punishment among Boston residents as well as among Democrats, women, and minorities nationwide.

The reasons why vary. For Ms. Kensky and Mr. Downes, putting Tsarnaev in prison for life and waiving his rights to appeal would close the case with justice served and let them move on with their lives. The Globe reported:

[W]ith the penalty phase about to begin, they concluded that life without the possibility of parole or appeal would provide the best route to healing, keeping Tsarnaev from hurting anyone else while “assuring that he disappears from our collective consciousness as soon as possible.”

The same goes for the Richards: “We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” they wrote in an op-ed, also for The Globe.

“As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours,” they added. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.”

In Boston, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, the reasons may be more political, religious, and historical in nature.

“Massachusetts as a commonwealth has a basic commitment to civic virtues, to decency. These are deep, deep, deep in our soil,” the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister at Boston’s historic Old South Church, told The Christian Science Monitor in January. “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.”

Indeed, close to half of respondents said they favored life without parole over the death penalty for Tsarnaev, according to a recent citywide survey by The MassINC Polling Group for Boston radio station WBUR.

Previous polls had similar results: A third of respondents wanted the death penalty for Tsarnaev, while more than half said they preferred life in prison, The Boston Globe found in September 2013.

Massachusetts formally ended the death penalty in 1984, but because the Tsarnaev case falls under federal jurisdiction, capital punishment is an option.

In general, the majority of Americans still favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. But the number is down to 56 percent from 78 percent 20 years ago, a new Pew Research Center survey found.

The decline has come mostly from Democrats, among whom only 40 percent now support capital punishment, as opposed to 71 percent in 1996, according to the survey. Approval also dropped 10 percentage points among women, 7 percentage points among Hispanics, and 15 points among blacks.

One of the main reasons given for decline is the risk of convicting and executing innocent people, according to The Washington Post. Of the 125 people exonerated in the United States last year, six were on death row.

But some of those seeking a life sentence for Tsarnaev, who has admitted to setting the bombs with his brother, express an unease with executing even those known to be guilty.

“In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him,” said Kensky and Patrick Downes in a joint statement Sunday, according to the Globe. “We wish that he could feel the searing pain and terror that four beautiful souls felt before their death, as well as the harsh reality of discovering mutilated or missing legs. If there is anyone who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant. However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.”

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