Published: Granite Bay Gazette Vol. 18, Issue 8. Friday, May 22, 2015.
Reason for publication: With the upcoming trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I thought it would be interesting if I examined the controversy of the death penalty.
On April 15, 2013, two Russian brothers permanently changed the lives of over 260 people and took the lives of three when two bombs exploded at the annual Boston Marathon. The brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, planted the bombs near the finish line, and have been notoriously remembered since as the perpetrators of an infamous day that will stand out in America’s history.
After the explosion, the two brothers killed a police officer and hijacked a car. During the manhunt and succeeding shootout with the police, Tamerlan was pronounced dead after receiving gunshot wounds from the police and injuries after being run over with the stolen SUV by his brother, Dzhokhar.
Shortly after the shootout, Dzhohkar was found and detained by police. Recently, a jury found him guilty on the 30 accounts he was tried for and now faces the death penalty.
The death penalty – otherwise known as capital punishment – dates back as early as 1608 in America, with its popularity peaking in the 1930s when the average number of deaths as caused by capital punishment was 167 per year.
Capital punishment is still legal in California, but support from Americans for capital punishment has been slowly decreasing. A recent study done by the Pew Research Center found 56 percent of Americans support capital punishment, in general, but 71 percent of Americans from the same poll said they believe there is a possibility an innocent person could be found guilt for the death penalty.
“(In) modern day America … I would probably say (support for the death penalty) is lowering,” Granite Bay High School senior Jude Battaglia said. “Because in today’s society, where human rights are on the table and being discussed openly when it comes to LGBT rights, when it comes to people of color’s rights, I believe human rights are being discussed. And when people are fighting for equality, that is influencing the value of human life (as well as) the punishments that go along with it, and I believe that people are no longer passive about the subject of the death penalty, but are opposed to (it).”
Battaglia, who said he is in support of the death penalty as a form of punishment for crimes such as premeditated murder, rape and molestation, also said he believes the Granite Bay community as a whole is opposed to the death penalty. However, Battaglia said that death as a form of punishment will better help discourage people from committing crimes.
“My thoughts on the death penalty are (that) I believe it is a valid and viable punishment,” Battaglia said. “Mainly because there are certain situations where incarceration is not going to have any effect on the person committing the crime. If somebody is going to a commit a crime, anybody who has second thoughts on it is going to be less likely to commit the crime if the punishment is death, but anybody who’s going to commit the crime regardless of the consequences is going to not have any sway on the matter.”
Maddie Peterson, another GBHS senior, also said she is in support of the death penalty because she believes people who murder other people are often not fully mentally stable and, unless deserving of mental treatment via a mental health facility, should be punished with the death penalty.
Sacramento State Assistant Professor and expert on international law and human rights James Rae said that historical events have greatly impacted the level of international support for the death penalty as a form of punishment.
“With the end of World War II, the death penalty has dramatically declined as a form of punishment in modern democracies,” Professor Rae said. “It is virtually non-existent in Europe, and no international court allows for the death penalty today. Part of that is a reaction to intentional mass murder by the Nazi regime and a general societal change in Europe that came to see capital punishment as inhumane and uncivilized. The movement in the 1960s and 1970s that led briefly to its abolishment in the US reflected greater skepticism toward the government and more support for civil rights.”
Another semi-recent event, the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, reignited the debate over capital punishment as an ethical form of punishment.
Junior Naseeha Islam, who said she is in general opposition of the death penalty but believes it should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, said she thinks more people are in opposition of the death penalty after Lockett’s mishandled execution, which showed an inhumane side of the topic. Islam is also against the death penalty as a punishment for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, unlike Battaglia and Peterson – both in support for Tsarnaev’s case.
“Honestly, (his punishment) should probably be life in prison,” Islam said. “Because if there’s a death of four, why would you make it death of five? I understand that everything he did was completely unpardonable and disgusting and horrific, but at the same time is modern civilization going to stoop to that level and kill another person (because) they committed these terrible crimes? There are certain (cases) where you think they deserve the death penalty, but at the same time, if you’re trying to be a forgiving society, why not lead them towards rehabilitation?”
Additionally, Professor Rae said it is unclear whether or not there is a clear difference in support for the death penalty throughout different age groups.
“We may assume older people may more support it due to traditional religious values,” Professor Rae said “(While) younger people are more influenced by skepticism toward the authority and power of government. Yet among my students, many, if not most, voice support for the death penalty for ‘terrorists’, and those who may be considered out of the bounds of acceptable behavior. Many other young people suspect bias in the application of the death penalty and are suspicious of poor performance of duties by those in institutions of power.”
Islam also said, because of the discrepancies and changing trends in public support or opposition for the death penalty, it has become somewhat of a difficult topic. The government may not know whether the American public is in support or opposition of the death penalty in a certain case which makes it even more of a difficult topic, Islam said.
Furthermore, opposition for the death penalty has been shown to be slightly increased for those who attend church regularly, according to a poll done by Gallup. GBHS junior Jacob Calton who practices the beliefs of Protestant Christianity as well as following his own self-determined beliefs shaped by personal morals and ethics said he thinks his beliefs on the death penalty have not changed completely, but have been influenced by his religion to a certain degree.
“I think I’m more gracious (with) giving the death penalty because I’m a Christian,” Calton said. “But I don’t think I believe it’s necessarily wrong (just) because I’m a Christian. I would say, (for Tsarnaev’s punishment), probably life in prison. I think because he took so many people’s lives or threatened to … he should almost sit in prison to … gain respect for life itself. If you have life in prison you’re obviously going to realize life is a long time … to take from other people.”
The jury in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case must now deliberate his punishment, but they ultimately hold his life in their hands. The primary understanding when deliberating on the death penalty is the knowledge one’s life is on the line, and whether or not their crimes are deserving of death.
“People want that individual to pay for what he’s done,” Islam said “But at the same time you want to be humane about how you punish that person, not bring yourself to the same level that the criminal was (on.) So, I think that’s where the discrepancy comes in – it’s like two sides to your own brain.”