James Alan Fox
January 5, 2015
The United States v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev promises to be the "Trial of the Century" (or at least the century up to this point). Eyes of the nation are focused on the federal courthouse in Boston where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Of course, those who will be watching the legal proceedings the most intensively, either from a seat in the courtroom gallery or through the anticipated media blitz, are the victims and their families. With three people killed and more than 260 others injured in the blasts, the number of profoundly interested parties is sizable.
For surviving victims, the trial is not only about attaining justice for the harm and anguish believed to have been caused by the 21-year-old defendant and his deceased older brother, Tamerlan. It's not just about the long-awaited opportunity to view all the evidence and search for answers as to why they were attacked. For many still suffering emotionally, even if the physical wounds have healed, the trial is as much about finding closure. Not until the legal process is complete will they finally have the chance to "move on" psychologically from the devastating event.
Families of murder victims often believe that they cannot begin to heal until the perpetrator has had the same fate as their loved ones — death. The wounded, especially those suffering life-altering injuries, often seek the opportunity to go face-to-face with the defendant, wanting him to confront the irreparable damage done. And the entire community hopes to settle the score by having the evildoer suffer.
Unfortunately, closure is typically an elusive outcome, at least to the degree anticipated. What victims really want is to be restored, and made whole again. Yet, an execution does not bring back the loved one who was murdered. A trial does not eliminate the need for a prosthetic limb. And the community itself will never really forget the damage done on Marathon Monday, 2013.
How could anyone not be reminded when long into the future each annual race to Boston will serve to commemorate the devastation that launched the catchphrase, "Boston Strong"?
For all of these reasons, the preferred outcome would have been a plea bargain to life without parole for Tsarnaev, sparing a long and painful trial, while still giving those who wish it a chance to speak through victim impact testimony prior to sentencing. Even better, victims who are opposed to the death penalty would not be denied their day in court, as had occurred in the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, when the federal prosecutors prevented victim statements that might have persuaded the jury to a recommendation of life imprisonment.
To whatever extent surviving victims are able to move forward after trial and sentencing, that process is often delayed if the final stage of justice is death. It can take years waiting to witness the execution, an emotional roller coaster ride through each stage of appellate review. Meanwhile, the condemned irritatingly remains a focus of considerable news coverage.
Just as hundreds of prospective jurors and countless members of the press were venturing to Boston for the start of the trial, CNN reported that plea negotiations between the prosecution and the defense team had failed to reach an agreement. Apparently, the defense was ready to enter a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
This would have been the same settlement employed in many other major cases, including the federal prosecution of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. It is a shame that the government chose not to spare survivors and the rest of us a long, expensive and emotionally challenging ordeal in the name of justice.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.