Tsarnaev again faces death penalty, but support for capital punishment dropping

In several states, Republicans are part of the shift in views

IT’S PROBABLY THE highest profile capital punishment case in the country. And while it was an administration in Washington led by a Democratic president opposed to the death penalty that successfully sought reinstatement of the death penalty against Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, support for capital punishment in the country is declining, with some hard-core Trump Republicans now part of the swing against state-sanctioned executions.

The Biden administration declared a moratorium on carrying out federal executions, while simultaneously pursuing reinstatement of the death penalty for Tsarnaev following an appeals court decision to overturn his sentence. 

Following last week’s US Supreme Court ruling that reversed that decision, US Attorney Rachael Rollins, who says she is personally opposed to the death penalty, said she would move to pursue the death penalty against Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if instructed to do so by her boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland. 

Though Tsarnaev again could face execution, he has other avenues to appeal, and it is likely to be years before he could ever actually face capital punishment. 

For Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, that day can’t come soon enough. He makes that argument in today’s paper under a spare headline that cuts to the chase in conveying his view: “Execute Tsarnaev,” it reads. “If anyone merits the worst punishment in our legal system, Tsarnaev does,” Jacoby writes. “Indeed, for crimes like his, any lesser punishment would be a miscarriage of justice.”

Efforts to end the federal death penalty have so far stalled in Congress. But public support for the death penalty has undergone a significant change, with support going from a high of 80 percent in the mid-1990s (a time when urban gun violence was high) to 54 percent as of October 2021. While much of the decrease in support came from Democrats changing their views, a smaller part of the shift in views is the result of changing attitudes among Republicans.

Vox writer Marin Cogan explores how those changes are playing out in Ohio, where a bill to outlaw the death penalty has bipartisan sponsorship. Supporters say it will pass sometime in the next year or so. What’s surprising is not the liberal Democrats who support the bill, but the Republicans who do as well. 

“I’m a true conservative, a Trump supporter all the way,” state Rep. Jeanne Schmidt tells Cogan. “And I have changed my mind on this.” 

Schmidt is co-sponsor, with a Democratic colleague, of a bill to end the death penalty in Ohio. 

A Catholic who is strongly opposed to abortion, Schmidt says she ultimately came to believe support for the death penalty was incompatible with her pro-life views. “For a long time it gnawed at me, being pro-life, that I was willing to let somebody be killed,” she said. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Last year, New Hampshire became the last New England state and 21st in the country to outlaw capital punishment, with a bipartisan coalition of legislators overriding a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. In 2020, Colorado also banned the death penalty with bipartisan backing for the move. 

Another Republican cosponsor of the Ohio legislation, state Rep. Ron Ferguson, frames his view by highlighting the high cost of implementing the death penalty and as part of a general skepticism about government that he says conservatives should relate to. “I barely trust the government to deliver the mail, let alone make a decision on executing a human being,” Ferguson tells Cogan. “That seems to resonate quite a bit with everyone from progressives to staunch conservatives and everyone in between.”