Boston bomber Tsarnaev faces death: Legalized revenge?

Jurors side with prosecution against Tsarnaev
Jurors side with prosecution against Tsarnaev

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Jurors side with prosecution against Tsarnaev 01:42

Story highlights

  • Tsarnaev's sentence could provide him with a legitimization for his act, writes Philippe Coste
  • According to a poll, about half of the French say they still favor the death penalty, he writes

Philippe Coste is a New York City-based correspondent for L'Express, and writes about American culture and politics. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)In the early 1970s, France seemed as unlikely as today's America to ever abolish the death penalty. But it took only 10 years of soul-searching and landmark trials before the country of the guillotine dealt calmly with the historic decision of President François Mitterrand's left-wing majority in September 1981.

So, at a time when the number of Americans favoring the death penalty recedes, it was interesting for a foreign correspondent to see if the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the bomber of the Boston Marathon, could give hints of changes to come. It did not happen.
Philippe Coste
If everything goes as usual, wardens will one day try to find a suitable vein to inject him with the least controversial lethal chemical available, and at a press conference on the night of the execution, relatives of victims will have to praise "justice done" before going back home to their still-unresolved loss.
    Vengeance, when it is the core promise of a justice system, can lack efficiency. It can also backfire in matters of terrorism. Instead of discrediting Tsarnaev and lowering him to the level of the criminal he is, the sentence could raise his status in the eyes of potential admirers and even provide him with a legitimization for his act. It seems obvious that his older brother would have received the capital punishment, giving jurors enough leeway to consider mitigating circumstances for the younger one.
    What Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could face at Supermax prison
    Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

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    What Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could face at Supermax prison 02:47
    America didn't take the high road in this case by throwing its wrath on the only surviving culprit. It even lost a moral superiority by aligning its response to the level of the senseless killing perpetrated by the accused. Tsarnaev, mere agent of murder and pain, as his potential followers, may now think he is simply paying with his life the price of defeat against a wrongful and ruthless enemy.
    This case brings memories of the post-Oklahoma City trial, 20 years ago, and especially the invitation of 232 relatives of his victims of the bombing to watch Tim McVeigh "state assisted suicide" cast live from his Indiana prison on a large screen in an Oklahoma City building.
    Some of them, who had arrived at 2 a.m. to attend the event, expressed disappointment because they could not detect traces of fear or pain on the face of the dying man. Others resented the fact he had not spoken a word. What did they expect by offering him a stage? The terrorist had even adorned himself with chivalry before the send-off of his "unconquered soul" by copying the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. "My Head is bloodied but unbowed," he had written. State-assisted vengeance can be disappointing.
    Foreign observers are often puzzled by the enormous role that victims and their families play in the determination of sentences. Nobody says their suffering should be absent from the trial, but coming from Europe where justice still looks like the way it did in the United States in the 1970s -- mainly an issue between the criminal and society as a whole -- it is often hard to make sense of the Victim Impact Evidence at the sentencing phase, the teary account of mothers or children of victims of the qualities of the deceased, followed by their expected request for death against the killer.
    The ritual may look like a natural part of the process but it is recent, dating back to a supreme court decision of 1991, the time when public opinion, tough on crime politics and prime time emotional news started to have a seat in the courts. Following this logic of this "privatization" of justice would lead back to our tribal past. Why not give the clan a rifle or sword, like in Taliban country, to kill the accused? How far should judges, legislators, jurors, institutions step back to let the politics of easy retribution take place?
    In France, the death penalty was doomed several years before its actual abolition. In 1977, when Robert Badinter, famous lawyer and future minister of Justice, managed to get life in prison for his client Patrick Henry, the murderer of a seven-year-old child and the most hated person in the country, by pleading exclusively for principles against the capital punishment.
    According to a poll done in April 2015 by Ipsos/Sopra Steria, about half of the French say they still favor the death penalty, which is now banned in our very constitution. But it remains a personal issue. Citizens don't demonstrate, or scream in talk shows for the return of executions. Even if they resent the alleged weakness of authorities toward petty crimes, they trust the wisdom of courts and jurors in the most terrible cases.
    Although the populist Front National promises a referendum on capital punishment if it ever grabs power, politicians and talk show hosts have not embraced the cause of death and revenge. And there is still a space between the emotions of the street and the reasoning of the courts. It still makes all the difference.