Speaking Out Against the Death Penalty in the Context of the Boston Marathon Trial

If someone had asked me before today to name something I had in common with both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sister Helen Prejean, I would have been hard pressed for an answer. Not anymore.

This week, I had the honor of accepting on behalf of the BBA the Mass Citizens Against the Death Penalty’s Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award. In choosing us to receive this award, MCADP highlighted the hard work and deep analysis that went into creating the BBA’s Death Penalty Report of 2013, as well as our 40-year history of opposition to capital punishment.

This is a complex and controversial issue. I understand and respect that not everyone – BBA members and nonmembers alike – will agree with the Association’s position. That aside, it was gratifying to see the careful research and thoughtful analysis of the Working Group be recognized.

I shared the honors with Professor Stephen Nathanson of Northeastern University, who received the Hugo A. Bedau Award for his book, An Eye for Eye: The Immorality of Punishing by Death.

I had the chance to meet and speak with MCADP Chairman David Ehrmann, grandson of Herbert and Sara, for whom the award is named. I was humbled to realize that the reception and award ceremony is not an annual event, but something that is given out when the board is moved by an individual’s or group’s actions. In addition to the BBA, the award has been given to John Kerry, the Archdiocese of Boston, and Sister Helen Prejean.

During the course of the evening, both Ehrmann and MCADP President James Rooney cited BBA’s 2013 Report, which was a team effort led by Marty Murphy and Judge Margaret Hinkle.  The report makes the case that the death penalty is fundamentally inconsistent with the fair administration of our system of justice, pointing out that:

  • The inevitability of error in criminal cases makes it overwhelmingly likely that reliance on the death penalty will lead to the execution of innocent defendants.
  • In practice, the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Pursuit of the death penalty is an inordinately expensive gesture, inconsistent with the sensible allocation of resources in a criminal justice system already laboring under great financial strain.

These systemic flaws compel us to speak openly against capital punishment, even when the facts of a particular case do not appear to raise questions about innocence or discrimination.

As many of you may know, the BBA rarely comments on specific cases.  But in the case of Boston Marathon bombing, we did. And I have to say that I’m really proud that we chose to emphasize our death penalty position in the context of what is arguably the most watched trial in recent history.

In the weeks that have followed our public call for the Department of Justice to take the death penalty off the table in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I have had many conversations with people about our position.  I have given interviews with NPR and spoken to reporters of all kinds, have debated the issue with David Yas in the podcast Unbillable Boston, and have debated a Boston Herald reporter in a BBC radio broadcast.

I think what has struck me about these discussions is how receptive people are to hearing the reasons behind why we came to oppose the death penalty decades ago and continue that opposition today: reasons that are rooted in data and focused on the fair administration of justice.

Even when we’ve agreed to disagree, the discussions have been civil and respectful, which can be a challenge when emotions are running high.

We don’t yet know what the sentence will be in the Boston Marathon trial, but I’m proud of what the BBA has added to the public discourse on this issue, and I’m grateful that – in receiving this award from the oldest abolition organization in the nation – the dedicated volunteers of MCADP feel we have added value as well.