Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Make a gift to NHPR and have a Valentine's message to a loved one read on air!

Holder To Decide Soon On Death Penalty For Tsarnaev


Attorney General Eric Holder says he will decide by Friday whether to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He's the surviving brother accused in the Boston marathon bombing. You'll recall that bombing killed and maimed people near the finish line of the race. Police later shut down much of the metropolitan area during a manhunt, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the brother they found hiding in a boat.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports on the debate over what should happen to him now.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As many see it, this is exactly the kind of case the death penalty is meant for.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: You would look at this as, you'll fall into the category of the worst of the worst, and it would appear to me that it would not be a close call.

SMITH: Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan says the heinous nature of Tsarnaev's alleged crimes far outweigh any mitigating factors

SULLIVAN: You know, considering obviously the randomness with regard to the killings, the number innocent victims, the planning that went in place, the maiming of so many other people, then yes, this would be the worst of the worst.

SMITH: Another former U.S. attorney, Don Stern, who personally opposes the death penalty, agrees it'll probably be sought in this case, despite arguments against it from Tsarnaev's defense team.

DON STERN: Such as his youth, such as the extent to which they will no doubt claim he was under the influence his older brother, that he should be spared the death penalty.

SMITH: Bombing victims have also had a chance to weigh in on the death penalty. Liz Norden, whose two sons both lost a leg in the attack, says Tsarnaev should face execution for what he and his brother allegedly did.

LIZ NORDEN: You know, their intentions were to go out to maim and severely hurt and kill people that day, which is what took place. So I think that all options should be on the table for the jury to decide.

SMITH: But some other victims say executing Tsarnaev would do nothing to lessen their pain. Sydney Corcoran was injured, and her mom lost both legs in the attack. They declined to comment for this report, saying they want to focus on their recovery, not the defendant. But in an interview with NPR last April, shortly after the attack, Corcoran said she'd rather see Tsarnaev get life in prison than the death penalty.

SYDNEY CORCORAN: I am angry, but I wouldn't wish this upon them, either. I think, like, it's just too barbaric. And I would just want him to just live out his life and have to live with the fact that he did this.

SMITH: According to a recent poll, about a third of Boston residents support the death penalty for Tsarnaev. A national poll last spring showed twice the support. Massachusetts bans capital punishment for state crimes. And federal prosecutors have sought it against only two defendants here in recent decades. One was spared, and the other's being retried.

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a death penalty opponent, says executing Tsarnaev could actually do more harm than good.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: It would make him into a martyr. It would have people marching and parading to save his life. And in the end, for somebody like him, life in prison in obscurity may be worse than a quick, painless death and martyrdom.

SMITH: If prosecutors do pursue the death penalty, 12 jurors would have to be unanimous. And Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, says defense attorneys would face a tough decision on whether to try to move the trial away from the city that sees itself as a victim.

RICHARD DIETER: You may want to get out of that atmosphere. On the other hand, in Boston, the conditions might be more favorable than numerous other places. So you'd have to think twice.

SMITH: And, Dieter notes, even if prosecutors do go for the death penalty against Tsarnaev, things often change before trial and defendants often end up pleading guilty in exchange for life in prison.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.