Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Found Guilty: Will Federal Jury Impose Death Penalty in State That Bans It?

A federal jury has found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 charges for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds two years ago this month. Tsarnaev was also convicted in the murder of a police officer in the ensuing days. During the trial, Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys admitted he joined his older brother, Tamerlan, in setting off two explosions. The jury will now choose between the death penalty and a sentence of life without parole. Massachusetts bars the death penalty, but the case is taking place at the federal level. We are joined by James Rooney, president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.

TRANSCRIPT:

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Boston where a federal jury has found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 charges for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured more than 260. He was also found guilty in the murder of a police officer. Survivors of the attack welcomed the verdict. This is Karen Brassard.

KAREN BRASSARD: I’m grateful to have him off the street. I’m grateful to show everyone, the world, that it’s not tolerated. This is not how we behave. And we’re grateful that everybody’s worked so hard to make it, you know, known that we’re not going to allow this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the trial, Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys admitted he joined his older brother Tamerlan in setting off two explosions, but federal prosecutors still called 92 witnesses to the stand. They set the stage for what comes next. Starting next week, the jury will choose between the death penalty and a sentence of life without parole.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this is taking place in a state that has rejected the death penalty. It’s been 67 years since the last execution in Massachusetts, and 14 years since its legislature refused to restore the death penalty. A recent poll by Boston’s NPR station WBUR found more than 60 percent of Boston residents believe the admitted Boston Marathon bomber should receive life in prison instead of the death penalty. The state attorney general has called for Tsarnaev to be sentenced to life in prison. And on Monday, the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, wrote, “The defendant in this case has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm.” He added, “no matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.”

Well, for more, we head up to Boston, where we are joined by James Rooney, President of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, which is the oldest anti-death penalty organization in the country. It was founded in 1928 in response to the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In March, he helped organize a symposium on “The Tsarnaev Trial: The Federal Death Penalty in Abolitionist Massachusetts.” We welcome to Democracy Now! First, can you respond to the verdict? All guilty on all 30 counts.

JAMES ROONEY: I guess I’m not surprised. When the lead defense counsel in her opening statement says, my client did the acts that he has been charged with, makes the jury’s task is easy. So even though there’s 30 counts, it wasn’t really that surprising that they would find him guilty on all counts.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of – James Rooney, of the death penalty, the federal death penalty, possibility in this case and especially in the state of Massachusetts?

JAMES ROONEY: Well, obviously, that is of a concern to us since we have worked long and hard to keep the death penalty out of this state. But as I’m sure you’re well aware, the federal government is a different sovereignty and can charge death cases, whether or not the state where the act took place, has the death penalty or not. And indeed, in Massachusetts, we’ve see the federal government bring a number of death penalty cases. Ten years or so ago, it charged a nurse at a veterans administration hospital with killing some patients. That went to trial. It also charged a man named Gary Samson with killing in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. That went to trial. So this is the third death penalty case in Massachusetts within a short time.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us the history of the death penalty, going way back? I mean your organization was founded in 1928, the oldest in the country. So talk about its history in Massachusetts. What were the cases?

JAMES ROONEY: The history of Massachusetts is, like many other places, for many years, Massachusetts had the death penalty. Between the 1640’s and 1947, when we had the last execution, 345 people were executed in the state. We’ve had many notorious death penalty cases. The ones I think people would know the most of were the Salem Witch Trials and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. And Sacco and Vanzetti is particularly important because it demonstrated certain weaknesses in the justice system in this state. You had questions about the fairness of the trial for these immigrants and it led to an anti-death penalty movement. That movement worked long and hard, but didn’t really get any success until the 1950’s when one of our founders – our founder, Sara Ehrmann, who was the wife of one of the lawyers who represented the Sacco-Vanzetti on appeal, managed to lobby the legislature and convince the legislature to adopt a bill that would allow juries in a capital case not suddenly to considered death as a punishment, but life imprisonment as the punishment.

That was really the first major victory we had an early 1950’s. After that, it has involved lobbying governors and lobbying legislatures and there have been some governors have opposed the death penalty and even before the US Supreme Court in Ferman in 1972 came down and abolished the death penalty throughout the country for a brief period, we had some success in convincing governors not to sign death warrants. So you had various actions throughout that period. And then when the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 in the Gregg case, there was more action in Massachusetts, in essence, between the governor, the legislature, and the courts, over whether there should be a death penalty in this state. The court struck the death penalty down a couple of times. Death penalty bills were passed twice. A referendum was held and passed in the state, in which the public said that the supreme judicial Court of Massachusetts couldn’t use the Massachusetts Constitution’s due process clause to vacate a death penalty bill.

But in the end, the final decision from the supreme judicial court was that the latest death penalty bill passed during Governor King’s administration, violated the US Constitution, in essence, because it said that if you pled guilty, you’d get a life sentence. But if you want to trial, you risked getting the death penalty. And the court felt that that was an undue imposition on the right to a jury trial. And that’s the way it stayed.