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‘Happy’ or ‘deeply disappointed’: Boston’s top elected officials are split on reinstating the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

"It deeply impacts us here in Boston."

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Paul Norden walks past the Boston Marathon Memorial after visiting the on the eight-year anniversary of the attacks this spring. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

Most of the Boston area’s top elected officials want to abolish the use of the death penalty as a punishment in the United States.

However, fewer feel that way when it comes to the case of Dhzokhar Tsarnaev.

In the wake of the request by President Joe Biden’s administration last week for the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber, the reactions among local Democrats have ranged across the spectrum — from disappointment to support.

“Although the president might not agree with the death penalty, I’m happy that he’s allowing his attorney general to have autonomy and make those decisions,” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said in an interview Sunday on WCVB.

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Rollins added that Biden — whose campaign said he would “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example — was doing the “right thing” by allowing Attorney General Merrick Garland to continue the Justice Department’s pursuit of the death penalty for Tsarnaev for the 2013 bombings, which killed three people — Martin Richard, 8; Krystle Campbell, 29; and Lu Lingzi, 23 — and injured several hundred.

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“It deeply impacts us here in Boston, and we know the Richards — Martin Richards’s family — is not interested in moving forward with that,” Rollin said. “But other survivors, or people that were harmed, and victims are.”

Her comments came after Rep. Ayanna Pressley — whose district includes the last stretch of the marathon course where the two bombs exploded — said she was “deeply disappointed” by the Biden administration’s move.

“State-sanctioned murder is not justice, no matter how heinous the crime,” Pressley said in a statement last week.

“The Boston Marathon bombing was a devastating day in our city and I am deeply committed to accountability and healing for the families robbed of a loved one and our community writ large,” the Boston Democrat said. “But let me be clear – no just nation should be in the business of executing people.”

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A vocal opponent of the death penalty, Pressley called on Biden last year to use executive action to abolish death penalty at the federal level. Researchers estimate that it applied disproportionately to people of color and that at least 4 percent of people on death row are innocent.  Canada, Mexico, and nearly every European country have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

Capital punishment also has been abolished in Massachusetts since 1984, but since Tsarnaev was convicted on federal terrorism charges, he was eligible for the death penalty. In 2015, a jury convicted and subsequently sentenced the now-27-year-old to death. However, following an appeal, a federal judge overturned the sentence last year, ordering a new penalty phase to determine whether Tsarnaev will get the death penalty or a life sentence.

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Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey, who has said she was near the finish line when the bombs went off, also said last week that she remains “strongly opposed to the death penalty, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or anyone else.”

And several members of the Massachusetts delegation, including Rep. Jim McGovern and Seth Moulton, joined Pressley in speaking out against the Biden administration’s request, as Politico first reported.

“While I support the independence of the Justice Department and I know Tsarnaev is a terrorist and a punk, I am fundamentally opposed to the death penalty — whether it’s for Tsarnaev or anyone else,” Moulton said in a statement.

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“I oppose the death penalty simply because there is no way to guarantee the United States will not kill an innocent person, and the injustice of killing even one innocent person is not worth the justice of putting the guilty to death,” the Salem Democrat continued. “I also oppose the death penalty because prosecutors have a bias towards seeking it when people of color are on trial, and because the appeals process means the government spends more on death sentences than life sentences and victims must endure several trials and relive their trauma multiple times. I hope Tsarnaev spends the rest of his miserable life rotting in jail.” 

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Some members of the delegation, despite opposing the death penalty, have been less eager to speak out on the locally sensitive subject.

Reps. Katherine Clark and Lori Trahan — both of whom are co-sponsors of Pressley’s bill to abolish the death penalty at the federal level — did not respond to requests for comment.

Spokespeople for Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey noted that the two Massachusetts Democrats have opposed to death penalty, including for Tsarnaev. However, they also declined to comment on the Biden administration’s move.

Meanwhile, a few top elected officials offered tepid support.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, reiterated his stance last week that “Tsarnaev should face the death penalty.”

“I would agree with the Biden administration on that,” he told reporters last Tuesday.

A spokesman for Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who supports abolishing the death penalty, told Politico that “given the circumstances” of the Tsarnaev case, the Newton Democrat “respects the Justice Department’s decision.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch, who backed the initial move by President Barack Obama’s administration to seek the death penalty, told WBUR on Thursday that he understands the desire to “move on,” rather than continue to fight over the sentence in court. But the South Boston Democrat reasoned that the cases represented the “worst of the worst.”

“As much as I have problems with the death penalty, generally, terrorism and waging war against an innocent civilian population is a grievous, grievous offense, and what this man did was just sheer butchery,” Lynch said, adding that Biden is “trying to let the rule of law prevail here.”

White House officials say Biden continues to believe that the Department of Justice should no longer carry out executions, but that the agency also has independence under Garland.

Without a change in the law, Rollins suggested Sunday on WCVB that prosecutors are obligated to seek the maximum possible sentence in such cases.

While she is personally opposed to the death penalty, the district attorney — who is vying to become the next U.S. attorney for Massachusetts — said those personal beliefs would be “irrelevant” to her decisions in potential death penalty cases.

“If you aren’t going to ask for the death penalty in the marathon bombing, what are you gonna ask for it for?” she asked.

What’s your take? Answer the Boston.com poll below, or email [email protected], and we’ll feature your responses in a future story.

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