Jurors in Boston sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death Friday for his role in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that ultimately left four dead and hundreds more injured.
US District Judge George O’Toole Jr. will formally impose the sentence at a later date during a hearing in which bombing victims will be allowed to speak. Tsarnaev will also be given the opportunity to address the court.
The Tsarnaev trial seemed inextricably linked to the region’s heavily Catholic identity from the beginning. But the Church’s vocal opposition to the death penalty in the weeks leading up to the verdict did not sway jurors.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, but Tsarnaev was being tried in federal court and was thus eligible to die. Polls showed that most Bostonians opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev.
The Catholic parents of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old marathon spectator killed in the blasts, published a letter in The Boston Globe last month urging jurors not to impose the death penalty.
“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” Bill and Denise Richard wrote. “We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”
Last month, the four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts reiterated the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment, even in regards to this terrorism case.
“The defendant in this case has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm,” they said in a joint statement. “Because of this, we, the Catholic Bishops of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, believe that society can do better than the death penalty.”
The bishops – representing the Archdiocese of Boston and the Dioceses of Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester – quoted the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’s 2005 statement on the death penalty, which states, “no matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.”
They went on to say that “these words remain true today in the face of this most terrible crime.”
As the trial entered its sentencing phase, the defense brought in anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, who inspired the film Dead Man Walking, to testify on Tsarnaev’s behalf.
She provided the only evidence of any remorse on the defendant’s part in the two years since the attack, quoting Tsarnaev as saying of the bombing victims: “No one deserves to suffer like they did.”
“I had every reason to think he was taking it in and he was genuinely sorry for what he did,” she said.
Prejean said she had met with Tsarnaev five times since early March and that he “kind of lowered his eyes” when he spoke about the victims. His “face registered” what he was saying. She interpreted his remorseful sentiment “as absolutely sincere,” she said.
Prejean said she talked with Tsarnaev about both their faiths: his Islam and her Catholicism.
“I talked about how in the Catholic Church we have become more and more opposed to the death penalty,” she said, quickly drawing an objection from the prosecution.
Earlier this year, some Catholics in Massachusetts lamented that jurors were being excluded because they oppose capital punishment.
“It is both ironic and unfortunate that Catholics who understand and embrace this teaching will be systematically excluded from the trial,” the Rev. James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College, told the Religion News Service in January. “It is frustrating.”
A majority of Catholics in the United States — 59 percent of white Catholics in one recent poll — still favor the use of the death penalty, but a joint effort by conservative and liberal Catholics last month seeks to change that.
Catholics on Twitter showed a range of reaction to Friday’s verdict.
As a Catholic & follower of Jesus Christ, I forgive #Tsarnaev. I leave justice up to God. Deut. 32:35
— Sacerdotus (@Sacerdotus) May 15, 2015
As a resident of Boston, this sentence is not representative of my view. Another murder is not the answer. #CatholicSocialTeaching
— Daniel P. Horan, OFM (@DanHoranOFM) May 15, 2015
— CMN (@CMNEndtheDP) May 15, 2015
The defense argued that sparing his life and instead sending him to the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, would be a harsh punishment and would best allow the bombing victims to move on with their lives without having to read about years of death penalty appeals.
The decision sets the stage for what could be the nation’s first execution of a terrorist in the post-9/11 era, though the case is likely to go through years of appeals. The execution would be carried out by lethal injection.
Material from the Associated Press and the Religion News Service was used in this report.