When prosecutors made this announcement, they said it was because Tsarnaev acted in “an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner” — and because did not show remorse for his alleged actions on April 15, 2013, when three people were killed and 250 more were injured in the bombings.
The death penalty is not a legal form of punishment in state courts in Massachusetts; but because Tsarnaev will be charged and tried in federal courts, prosecutors are able to argue for its use.
This is a hard decision, and a difficult moment in our life as a country.
According to Gallup, support for the death penalty began declining in the early 1950s, reaching as low as 42 percent of the country in 1966 supporting and 47 percent opposing (the only year that more have opposed it than supported it). However, after that, support began increasing, reaching as high as 80 percent supporting its use in 1994.
In the most recent polls, 60 percent of our country supports its use and 35 percent oppose it. Those are similar numbers to the ones that existed in 1936, when Gallup began tracking public views on these trends.
At the same time, the use of the death penalty has been increasingly disappearing around the globe. As of 2012, only 21 countries were known to have executed people, only eight of those countries executing more than 10.
What countries are there that make that list? In order of how many executions they are: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Yes, that is right — we rank fifth. Furthermore, this is a very uncomfortable grouping of countries to be listed among.
Increasingly, the various Christian traditions in our country have become more vocal in their opposition to the death penalty. Historically pacifist groups, like Quakers, have opposed it for years. They are now joined by the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and my own Anglican Communion, whose Lambeth Conference of bishops wrote in 1988, “This Conference … urges the Church to speak out against: … all governments who practice capital punishment, and encourages them to find alternative ways of sentencing offenders so that the divine dignity of every human being is respected and yet justice is pursued.”
Other groups, like the Southern Baptist convention, continue to support what they call the “fair and equitable” use of capital punishment.
Over the years, I have become increasingly resolute in my opposition to the death penalty in any situation. Not only is this a belief that flows out of the teachings of my own Anglican tradition, but it is one that began with my experience living in Texas while in seminary. At that time, someone pointed me to a website that lists the last words of the last 510 people executed in Texas. Just read a few of them and your heart will begin to break. Not only does the racial application of the death penalty become clear, but it also becomes clear that many of these people suffer from significant mental health issues.
Even traditions like the Southern Baptist convention that support a fair and equitable use of capital punishment insist it should not be used for revenge. Killing one person does not heal the wound from the death of another.
In 2012, the National Research Council of the National Academies released a review of more than three decades of research, concluding that claims that the death penalty functions as a deterrent are fundamentally flawed. Similar studies continue to proliferate. It doesn’t make sense even from base economic standpoint, as the cost of administering the death penalty is far above life-long incarceration.
Tsarnaev’s alleged actions are indeed heinous. The murder, the violence, the terror with which this moment gripped Boston are all horrendous realities that cannot be ignored. However, killing Tsarnaev will not solve anything. It will not deter other would-be terrorists. It will not bring back those who have died. It will not even save the state money.
And, most importantly, for Christians, it will take away a reality that is fundamental to our faith — the opportunity for penitence and forgiveness.
There should be no more killing, no more death, added to this tragic event.
It is time that our nation joined other developed nations in abolishing the death penalty. It is time that all Christians take seriously the call of Christ and seek to change our society so that we are not one that kills those most wounded or wicked among us, but that instead we find ways to encourage change, healing or, when all else fails, secure imprisonment.
The Very Rev. Jared Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. His reflections on life and ministry can be found on his blog: carewiththecure.blogspot.com.