Life or Death? Catholics Debate Fate of Boston Marathon Bomber

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted April 8 of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted April 8 on 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted April 8 on 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013. (photo: Wikipedia)

BOSTON — It was a heinous act, laying a backpack bomb near the feet of three children — but does it warrant the death penalty?

On April 15, 2013, the Richard siblings had just come from getting ice cream and had joined the jubilant crowd of people of every age cheering loudly for runners of the 117th Boston Marathon. Every year, the electric crowd energizes the runners as they take their last strides down Boylston Street toward the finish line.

At approximately 2:49pm, two bombs ripped through the crowd, killing three and physically injuring hundreds more. Martin Richard, 8, was the youngest who died. His sister, Jane, 7, lost one leg. Their parents also suffered serious injuries, while their older brother, standing farthest from the blast, had no physical injuries.

The manhunt to find those responsible closed down the entire city of Boston for a day — a driving ban left the roads empty, and all public transportation shut down.

One suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a shootout with police, and his younger brother went missing. Hours later, a homeowner discovered something amiss with the covered boat in his back yard. Police found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, there and took him into custody.

On April 8, 2015, nearly two years after the bombing, a jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 counts he faced, 17 of which carry a maximum penalty of death. Testimony in the sentencing hearing will begin April 21, the day after this year’s Boston Marathon.


Aftermath of the Bombing

Catholics following the trial disagree about the fitting sentence — life in prison or death.

Some who support life in prison do so as a call for mercy; others believe that lifelong incarceration would be the best punishment for Tsarnaev. Those who support the death penalty say it is the only punishment that fits the magnitude of the crime.

Albert Coelho, a Catholic from Raynham, Mass., said, “One hundred percent I do believe the death penalty is the right choice for him. I think it’s the fair consequence of what he did and all the lives that he tried to take and the lives that he succeeded in taking.”

Coelho ran the marathon in 2013, raising money for Boston Children’s Hospital. His wife, Sandra, waited at the finish line for him. She stood halfway between the bomb sites on the opposite side of the street; though she was unharmed physically, Coelho said the emotional wounds linger.

“It’s just something that will always be with everybody, but especially being right in the middle of everything [it has affected my wife]. Emotionally, it’s tough for her,” he said.

Father John Wykes, who served at a church near the blast site, heard about the bombing, grabbed his holy oil and sprinted for the finish line. Unable to gain access to the area, he administered the sacrament of the sick from a distance.

Father Wykes, an Oblate of the Virgin Mary, has been following the Boston Marathon trial from his new assignment in Alton, Ill. Despite efforts by Tsarnaev’s defense team to claim that their client was under the influence of his older brother, Father Wykes said he believes that both men acted freely. He supports life in prison for Dzhokhar, adding that his incarceration must be secure.

“He committed a terrorist act, has no regrets for what he did, and if he were to be released or managed to escape, he would act again. There’s no question,” he said.


Seeking the Death Penalty

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not exclude a state’s right to use capital punishment: “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (2267).

Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life) states that, in the modern era, cases where an execution is an absolute necessity are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

However, Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said that John Paul’s teaching urged non-lethal punishments but “did not repudiate the right of the state to impose a just death penalty.”

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has not executed a criminal since 1947, and the death penalty is no longer legal there. But Tsarnaev was tried in federal court, and federal prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty. However, jurors are from the Boston area, where many people oppose the execution. A poll released March 23 by WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate, found that 62% of Bostonians support a lifetime in prison for Tsarnaev; 27% said they support the death penalty. The jury would have to be unanimous in the decision to impose capital punishment.


Pleas for Mercy

The four Massachusetts bishops released an April 7 statement calling for life in prison for Tsarnaev. They said the defendant is no longer a threat, and society can “do better than the death penalty.”

Professor Timothy Muldoon, assistant to the vice president for university mission and ministry at Boston College, said that there is a great temptation to seek the ultimate punishment in the face of such horrendous crimes. The college, located along the marathon route, sheltered many runners and spectators during the frightening hours after the bombing. Public transportation had been shut down, roads were closed, and no one knew whether or not the attack was over. Several alumni and students were severely injured at the finish line.

Despite witnessing the aftermath of the bombing, Muldoon made a plea for mercy.

“Mercy is always predicated on a fundamental asymmetry: God’s mercy towards us is always greater than we deserve. We are called to practice it towards one another,” he added.

Many area Catholics agree with him, including Peter Kisner of Boston, who said, “Capital punishment doesn’t teach the criminal anything. It doesn’t deter other criminals from killing. It does not materially benefit the deceased or their friends and relatives for a murderer to be killed.”


Ongoing Influence

Some Catholics believe that executing Tsarnaev will be the best way to mitigate future harm from him. Others are concerned that Tsarnaev’s execution will make him a martyr.

“In killing this young man we will make him a hero in the eyes of some people,” said Bea Martins from Fall River, Mass. “We need to incarcerate him rather than end his life.”

Gail Besse Ryberg, from Hull, Mass., disagreed, saying, “I lean toward execution; not out of vengeance, but because I fear that even were he locked up and the keys lost, he would still be a hero figure in prison and convert others to Islamic terrorism.”

There are also Catholics who view the death penalty as the easy way out. Frank Fumich, a marathoner from Arlington, Va., ran the Boston Marathon for the Martin Richard Charitable Foundation the year after the bombing. Speaking on his own behalf, he agreed that life in prison would be the better punishment.

“I actually think it would be more punishment for him to spend the next 70 years in a maximum-security prison cell for 23 out of 24 hours a day, so that’s why I’m hoping for life in prison,” he said. “But if the jury votes for death, then I’m not going to lose any sleep over that either.”

Helen Cross, from Hull, said that although she sees “ample justification” for Tsarnaev’s execution, she hopes the jury does not impose it. If he is spared, “It is our duty to pray for his repentance.”

Anne Fox of Needham, Mass., added that the jurors face a difficult dilemma. “I pray for those who have to make the decision.”

Register correspondent Christine M. Williams writes from Boston.