Why families condemned to new struggle after Tsarnaev sentence

Story highlights

  • Jody Madeira: The times that follow Tsarnaev death sentence may not be as peaceful as one expects for family members, survivors
  • She says McVeigh sentence shows torments of appeals process, media coverage and an execution that doesn't necessarily bring closure

Jody Lyneé Madeira is professor of law and Louis F. Niezer Faculty Fellow at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana. She is the author of "Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)After Friday's announcement of a death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one thing is certain: Over time, the reactions to Tsarnaev's continued visibility and the outcome of his appeals process will be unique to each family member of the bombing's victims and to survivors themselves.

Some have called for Tsarnaev's death in retaliation for the unthinkable pain he has inflicted on so many; others, such as the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richards, who died in the blast, have called for a life sentence so that they would not be yoked to Tsarnaev for years through a potentially interminable appeals process.
Jody Lyneé Madeira
After hearing the verdict, family members and survivors have commented that, whether they feel this sentence was "justice" or a travesty thereof, they hope to put this event behind them and move on. Death sentences surely mark new beginnings -- but the times that follow may not be as peaceful as one expects.
    America's experience with the last terrorist to be sentenced to death in federal court -- Timothy McVeigh -- suggests that Tsarnaev is going to be even more visible than he has been of late. So many questions remain unanswered, and all of them demand media attention: How is Tsarnaev reacting to his death sentence? Will he appeal, and on what grounds? What will be the outcome of a lengthy appeals process?
    From his infamous perp walk to his execution, the young Timothy McVeigh and his "boy-next-door" countenance was a magnet for media coverage. He gave frequent interviews, exchanged letters with journalists, collaborated on an authorized biography, and even participated in a "live from death row" interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" with Ed Bradley.
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    Tsarnaev has already graced the cover of Rolling Stone, generating widespread outrage. What future media opportunities await Tsarnaev as he adjusts to his new status of death row inmate? Will he wear it as a mantle of honor and martyrdom, or will it be an albatross about his neck?
    The appeals process and its outcome aside, many other troubling questions await survivors and family members, in particular the possibility of a closed-circuit broadcast of Tsarnaev's execution. When McVeigh was executed in 2001, only 10 family members and survivors witnessed his execution at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, but an unprecedented 232 others viewed the proceedings back in Oklahoma City via a closed circuit feed.
    Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had authorized this unusual procedure after touring the Oklahoma City Memorial and meeting with family members and survivors who pleaded with him to allow them to witness McVeigh's final moments. Like victims' reactions to Tsarnaev's death sentence, these entreaties from Oklahoma City were motivated not by bloodthirsty vengeance but a much more banal need to see the process through to completion, to see this hyper-visible perpetrator silenced.
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    Significantly, much of that desperate urge to silence McVeigh was rooted not in the Oklahoma City bombing itself, but in the ceaseless onslaught of commentary about his impending execution, the novelty of the closed circuit broadcast, and, paradoxically, victims' own responses to these unfolding events.
    If Tsarnaev is executed, will the attorney general sanction a second closed-circuit execution broadcast? If not, will family members and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing feel slighted, and perceive that their losses are regarded as insignificant beside Oklahoma City's?
    In adjusting to a post-verdict world, family members and survivors potentially have much soul-searching ahead of them. This adaptation may be easiest for those who decided early on not to follow news of the trial. But others who were more involved in following these matters -- or involved in proceedings themselves -- have to decide whether the time has at last come for them to look away.
    And if they choose to look away, they have to learn how to negotiate this potentially traumatizing "new normal," in which Tsarnaev will continue to be a constant media presence. This is their new struggle. Tsarnaev, though condemned to die, is not going away any time soon.