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Copenhaver Op-Ed: Death Penalty Is Unjust
Tsarnaev Case Offers a Chance to Reject Our Urge for Vengeance
Note: The following is the original, uncut version of an op-ed submitted by President Martin B. Copenhaver to the Boston Globe in early May 2015.

Now that the courts are in the sentencing phase of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it is not only the terrorist who is on trial, but also the death penalty.

No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947 and the death penalty was officially abolished in our state in 1984. Tsarnaev is being tried for a federal crime, however — the crime of using “weapons of mass destruction” — so the jury is now deliberating on whether to impose the death penalty under federal law.

As the jury weighs Tsarnaev’s fate, it is a fitting time for the rest of society to deliberate on the death penalty itself.

There is no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. The United States is the only Western, industrialized country that practices capital punishment, and yet we have the highest incidence of homicide. Individual states that have had periods when they practiced capital punishment, and other periods when they did not, show no correlation between their practice and the incidence of homicide. Adjacent states in the same period of time, where one practices capital punishment and the other does not, show no difference in the incidence of homicide.

Clearly something besides deterrence is behind calls for capital punishment — the desire for vengeance. The impulse toward vengeance is older than history, certainly older than the Mosaic formulation, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose crime was so heinous, the call for vengeance is understandable. In such an instance, capital punishment seems to create a symmetry that is reasonable and measured:  the worst of all crimes deserves the worst possible punishment.

The desire for vengeance is instinctual, but it can be more than an expression of brute instinct. Some defend capital punishment as an expression of the desire to affirm the standards of our civilization. It says that we take our standards seriously and will not see them mocked by violent individuals.

This is a serious argument. Nevertheless, in our attempt to prove that we will not have our standards mocked, we end up mocking them ourselves. Consider: We kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong. That paradox should be enough to give us pause.

Even those who can accept such a paradox have to recognize that, when we move from theory to practice, the picture becomes even more disturbing. The death penalty is imposed inconsistently. It has become a lethal tool of racial bias. Roughly half of all the people murdered each year in the United States are black. Since 1977, however, when capital punishment was reinstated in this country after a time of prohibition, 85 percent of the people executed had killed a white person.

Reams of other statistics about how capital punishment is meted out are equally disturbing. So it is not surprising that each year new examples are added to the public record in which innocent people are executed.

Such bias may not be at work in the Tsarnaev trial, but if his execution leads to greater acceptance of capital punishment, that in itself is a high cost to pay.

In this historical moment we would do well to heed novelist Michael Ventura’s advice: “Be careful how you choose your enemy, for you will come to resemble him. The moment you adapt your enemy's methods your enemy has won.”

As a Christian minister, I believe that humans are not given the authority to end life. We only have the power to do so. So I am an abolitionist in regard to the death penalty.

To be sure, the Marathon bombings exacted a terrible toll. So much was lost. In the process of responding, let’s not lose something else that is precious — what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” We have an opportunity to show the world a different way of responding. We can refuse to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

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