Between the Lines: Death Penalty Test Case

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a visceral reaction to the idea of capital punishment. The notion of a government—any government—executing its citizens makes me feel weak. It makes me feel the extent of my own vulnerability and potential powerlessness against the authority of the state.

A wariness about government is healthy in my view, and while I might have preferred, for example, to see more effort made in Washington in the last few years to stimulate the economy, I am sympathetic to people who argue that the government is already too involved in the economy—that government is the problem, not the solution. Similarly, while I cheer the idea of making health care accessible and affordable, I don’t take it for granted that Barack Obama or anyone in the U.S. Senate has a legitimate plan or even an honest desire to do it.

A lot of Americans live by a code that basically says, I love my country but I distrust my government. In regard to my own skeptical view, I’ve always found myself in fairly good company. Except about the death penalty. On that subject, I often find myself in the minority—particularly now, with the decision by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to seek the death penalty for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

As a boy, my concept of state-authorized executions was formed largely by watching movies and reading novels. No doubt, my early view of the death penalty was shaped by the fact that, very often, the fictional character facing an electric chair or firing squad was unjustly accused or, at the very least, mostly sympathetic. Later on in life, however, I began to see that, whatever one’s view of capital punishment, not many death row inmates will ever appear as righteous. But I also began to see the fallibility of government.

In the case of the younger Tsarnaev, whose brother and alleged accomplice was killed during the manhunt for the bombers last April, it is impossible to see the accused in a sympathetic light. There is also little chance that the government has the wrong man.

The depravity of last year’s bombing surely justifies our collective thirst for vengence. But killing Tsarnaev will harm us more than it will help. Holder’s politically expedient decision to seek the death penalty will raise the cost of prosecution by millions and drag out the final adjudication of the case for years.

Rather than allowing the rarely-used 1988 law establishing a federal death penalty to fade into history where it belongs, Holder reinvigorated the arguments that helped create it in the first place, playing to passions that only interfere with the search for truth and justice and, worse, treating Tsarnaev as something special.•

Author: Tom Vannah

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