Boston Bar Association Asks DOJ Not to Seek Death Penalty for Tsarnaev

A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on January 15, 2015.
A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on January 15, 2015. –Jane Flavell Collins/REUTERS

On Tuesday, the Boston Bar Association — the oldest bar association in the nation — reiterated its position that the U.S. Department of Justice should not seek the death penalty in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In a statement, the association said:

“On the eve of final jury selection, the Boston Bar Association respectfully asks the Department of Justice to seek a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty. We believe that this can more swiftly close this chapter in our city’s history and return the focus to healing.’’

The association, which has more than 12,000 members, has opposed the death penalty in Massachusetts for 40 years. The Commonwealth ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1984.

The BBA specifically announced its opposition to the death penalty in federal cases in January 2014, just weeks before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice would seek the death penalty in Tsarnaev’s case.

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Even with the trial rapidly approaching, BBA President Julia Huston told Boston.com that “it is not too late’’ for the DOJ to change course and instead seek life imprisonment without parole should Tsarnaev be found guilty.

Explaining the BBA’s opposition to the death penalty, Huston pointed to three flaws (outlined in their December 2013 study The BBA and the Death Penalty) in the process: the financial strain it places on the beleaguered criminal justice system, its disproportionate impact on minority groups, and the inevitability of wrongful convictions — which Huston called an “unacceptable flaw in the process.’’

Huston also emphasized public misconceptions of capital punishment: Namely, that, if found guilty, the defendant must have committed the crime, or that, if convicted, they will actually be executed.

She noted that, of the 492 defendants the federal government sought the death penalty against since 1988, only three have been killed. The appeals process takes, on average, 16 years, she said.

So, despite what people believe of the death penalty, Huston said, “It is not swift, and it is not sure.’’

She believes the victims, their families, and the city want to see a fair trial and a swift and just punishment. Calling the Boston Marathon bombings “heinous, brutal acts’’ deserving of the most severe punishment our justice system has to offer, Huston said that, if Tsarnaev is found guilty, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole would offer a greater level of closure, and more quickly, to the city.

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Huston noted that the BBA’s position does not stem from a stance on the guilt or innocence of any defendant. She said that it is the association’s position that, because of its flaws, the death penalty should not be applied even when a defendant’s guilt is established.

Jury selection for Tsarnaev’s trial could be completed by the end of this week, meaning opening statements could start as soon as March 2.

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