This past Monday, the majority of the Boston College student body lined Mile 21 of Comm. Ave, reaching out for high fives and cheering on the runners despite the rainy weather. Although undoubtedly the best day of the year here at BC, the tragic memories of two years ago still rested in the back of many people's minds, especially as the sentencing phase of Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial opened on Tuesday. Tsarnaev is facing the death penalty for his acts of terrorism that resulted in the deaths of four people and the injuries of over 260 more. However, the jury must vote unanimously to send him to death row. Even one dissenting vote will determine a life in prison without parole instead.
This trial has brought to the forefront again one of the most hot-button issues in American politics: the death penalty. Immediately after the bombings occurred, shock and devastation lead many people to call for justice in the form of a swift trial, conviction, and execution for Tsarnaev. However, now two years later, it is important to analyze the events of April 15, 2013 through the mechanism of a just, fair, and constitutional trial that lives up to the values of the United States Constitution.
One major issue with the death penalty as it stands now is the most common method of execution: lethal injections. Nine out of ten of the more than fourteen hundred executions in the US since 1976 were carried out by lethal injection. Originally thought to be a humane alternative to other means of execution, such as electrocution and gas chambers, lethal injections are now under scrutiny. Believed to be a painless, forgiving method of execution, lethal injections have proved to be quite the opposite. When the commonly used anesthetic, sodium thiopental, meant to be administered prior to a paralytic agent and a heart-stopping drug, became unobtainable, it was often imported into the US in violation of federal law, neither checked or approved by the F.D.A.
In addition, often untrained prison officials are given the responsibility of administering these drugs to criminals sentenced to death, often without any training. Lawyers have even testified to the fact that a sedative used in the process, midazolam, doesn’t guarantee an unconscious state for death-row inmates. Therefore, the lethal injection process causes a risk of harm that is unconstitutional, in violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.
Oklahoma is one state that decided on lethal injections, specifically pioneering the three-drug protocol, as its chosen method for executions after the Supreme Court restored capital punishment. This type of execution is under scrutiny at the end of this month in Glossip v. Gross, which focuses on the Oklahoma legislature’s failure to call upon specialists to investigate the lethal injection procedure before designating it as the state’s official method of execution.
This question of constitutionality pertaining to lethal injection raises an even broader one: if the means by which the death penalty is carried out are illegal, should the death penalty be banned altogether?
What also needs to be considered are the unfair attributes of the Court system. Poor quality defense lawyers can lead to convictions of innocent people. Even if these cases are reversed years later, the unfairly accused have suffered years of their lives in jail, and often are not adequately or fairly compensated. Since 1973, a total of 152 people have been exonerated after later evidence that proved their innocence was revealed. The issue of capital punishment has been further blurred by the Court when juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities were barred from being subject to the death penalty. While these rules were created in an attempt to make the punishment fit not only the crime but also the criminal, they have often simply made convictions more arbitrary.
In addition, racial discrimination is present throughout convictions across the United States. In 1990, a report from the General Accounting Office reported that "in 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks." Prejudices like these make it nearly impossible to be confident that the death penalty deserves a place in our criminal justice system.
Not only does the death penalty have a better alternative, life in prison without parole, but it has many negative effects that extend beyond just the inmate being executed. Families of both the criminal and the victims undergo serious trauma by the prolonged process of executions. Interestingly, in the Tsarnaev trial, parents of the youngest victim, eight-year-old Martin Richard, have publicly opposed a death penalty verdict.
In Adam Liptak’s words, “the capital justice system in the United States is irretrievably broken.” Though it will be interesting to see how the Oklahoma and Tsarnaev cases play out, it is more important to remember what the existence of this examples represents: the wrongdoings of the capital punishment system and the chance to rectify it as soon as we can.