News recently splashed across the internet late last week that a federal appeals court threw out the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. However, the headlines – necessarily short and often written for shock value — belie the nuances of this story, which actually serve as a testament to the incredible backbone of the American system of justice and its principle of equality under the law.
First, let’s talk about what the appellate court did and did not say, despite those click-bait headlines:
- The court did not say that Tsarnaev, who was convicted of 30 charges, including conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction, was innocent. The court held up the vast majority of those convictions.
- In the ruling, which was a unanimous decision of the three judges who heard the case, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote, “But make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether [or not] he will die by execution.”
- The court did say two jurors approved by the original judge in the case should not have been allowed to be on the jury due to their pre-trial bias, the denial of that bias and other violations of the pre-trial court orders. Specifically, one juror had voiced strong negative opinions about Tsarnaev online before the trial and then denied she had made the comments. Another posted comments about the case online during jury selection despite specifically being told not to discuss the case.
- Because of these violations of law, the court ruled that the case warranted a new sentencing trial.
- The court specifically did not rule out the death penalty in a new sentencing trial.
All of us remember the horror of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, which killed three people (including an eight year-old child) and wounded more than 260 (including 17 who lost limbs). The bombs were set by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was 19 years old at the time, and his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police. An MIT policeman was later killed by the brothers during the manhunt for them.
Tsarnaev said he and his brother, both of whom had self-radicalized into Islamist jihadi ideology, had carried out the bombings as revenge for America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The brothers had intended to start with the Boston bombings and then proceed to New York and carry out a bombing in Times Square.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan built the bombs themselves from pressure cookers after reading directions they found in Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire.
The facts in this case are airtight, which makes this latest development frustrating. Everyone has the desire for justice to be exacted and no one doubts the guilt of Tsarnaev. Even Tsarnaev’s own lawyer told the jury at the beginning of the trial that her client was guilty despite the fact that Tsarneav officially pleaded not guilty to all the charges (the move was part of a failed legal strategy aimed at taking the death penalty off the table).
One might be tempted to call the appellate court ruling a technicality, but that would be a mistake. In reality, it is much more than that. It is a testament to one of the great foundational principles upon which our system of justice is built: equality under the law. It is a principle that has been sorely tested and severely abused both in our nation’s past and recent history.
Yet, in this case, the principle is working and justice is proceeding (however slowly and maddeningly). While it may be years before a new jury hands down another death sentence (or not) for Tsarnaev, we can be proud we live in a country that takes its principles of justice so seriously.