After the defense and the prosecution had rested their cases in the penalty phase of the federal trial to either kill or imprison Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a panel of death penalty abolitionists gathered at Old South Church in Boston.
Old South Church stands at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and is less than 100 yards east of the detonation point of the first pressure cooker bomb, the one placed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The second bomb, the one placed by Dzhokhar and which detonated 12 seconds later, lies one block farther west.
I arrived a half-hour early for the panel discussion, in case seating was a problem, but I needn’t have worried. The only immediate concern I had was how I was going to see anything. It must be some cost-saving measure in churches that they only use 40-watt bulbs, or perhaps it is to do with the atmospherics. I managed to find myself an altar boy seat off to one side of where the panel would sit so I would at least be close. To warm myself up for the talk I sketched the table and plethora of media microphones. You have to love working in ballpoint for making you decisive. By the time I was done, the chapel had filled, and the speakers took their seats.
If anyone in the world had the right to vengeance via state-sanctioned murder, it is this panel of speakers. New Hampshire state representative Robert Renny Cushing chaired the discussion. His father, Robert Cushing, was shot to death on his own front doorstep in 1988. Julia Rodriguez’s brother Greg died in the World Trade Center attacks. Bob Curley’s son Jeffrey was abducted and killed in 1997. And Bud Welch’s daughter Julie died in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Bud Welch spoke first. Bud’s daughter was 23 years old and working as a linguist in the Murrah Federal Building in April of 1995. “The bombing happened on a Wednesday morning and her body was not found until Saturday morning,” he said. She had just visited the front desk to meet a Mexican man who spoke no English, and was walking back to her desk with him when the bomb exploded. “If it had happened a few seconds later she would have been back in her department again.” All of her co-workers in the back of the building survived the blast. “I have thought about those few seconds a lot,” he said.
At first Bud’s need for revenge fueled him. In the days after the bombing he hoped that someone would shoot Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols dead.
“On a Monday morning, at 7 a.m. on June 11, 2001, in Terre Haute, Indiana, we took Tim McVeigh from his cage,” he said, “and we killed him.”
In the months and years since the attack, Bud’s opinion of the death penalty has changed. He believed that the attack on the Federal Building had been driven by “revenge and hate.” He wanted to send his vengeance in a different direction. “Shortly afterwards, I started speaking out against the death penalty,” he said.
Terry Nichols will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Next to speak was Bob Curley. Bob’s son was 10 years old and playing in the front yard of his grandmother’s home in 1997 when Sal Sicari and Charles Jaynes abducted him. “Two weeks prior they had stolen his bicycle. On that day they drove by and said, ‘Jeff, come with us. We are going to get you a new bicycle.’ He got in the car with them,” he said, looking down at his hands clasped on the table.
The two men then attempted to coerce Jeff into having sex with them by offering money and a new bike. “But my Jeff knew right from wrong.” Mr. Curley said. At least one of the men sexually assaulted Jeffrey before suffocating him with a gasoline soaked rag, placing his body in a concrete-filled plastic container and dumping it in a river in Southern Maine. Police divers found his body six days later.
“Given what happened to Jeffrey, I honestly don’t know if I could feel any other way than to be in favor of the death penalty,” he said, gazing at the assembled crowd with eyes like hardened flint.
Mr. Curley became a staunch advocate for the death penalty, leading the fight in Massachusetts to bring it back. As years went by, though, Mr. Curley began to realize that he felt pressured to be in favor of the death penalty because of his son’s death, and that he felt obligated by society to want to kill the men who had done this.
Both Sicari and Jaynes were convicted of the murder of Jeffrey. Sicari is now serving life without parole, while Jaynes is serving life with the possibility of parole after 23 years.
Next to speak was Julia Rodriguez. Julia said it was her first time ever talking publicly about her brother’s death. Her talk was halting and distracted at times by memories.. “There is just so much pain, and it is impossible to find answers,” she said.
After the attacks Julia joined other family members of 9/11 victims in opposing the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in connection with the attacks. Moussaoui is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the same Federal Supermax prison in Colorado that Dzhokhar may go to.
“The death penalty is seen as an easy answer,” she said, “but it is harmful to us to be complicit in a conscious act of violence and death.”
State Rep. Cushing was the last to speak to the small gathering. Cushing lost his father in June of 1988 when Robert McLaughlin, an off-duty police officer, and his wife, Susan, bent on avenging an earlier incident, shot him at his front door with a shotgun checked out of the police evidence locker. Ten years earlier, Cushing’s father had witnessed Officer McLaughlin assault an elderly woman while on duty.
Cushing said he had always been staunchly against the death penalty. He recounted an incident in a local grocery store after his father had been killed. “An old family friend said to me, ‘I hope they fry the bastards.’ ” His friend, who had known him for years, assumed that he would change his opinion on capital punishment because of his father’s murder. “But I realized that if I changed my position, that would only compound the problem,” he said. “If we let those who kill turn us into murderers, evil triumphs and we are all worse off.”
Robert and Susan McLaughlin were convicted of the murder of Robert Cushing and are serving sentences of life imprisonment without parole.
In 2004, Cushing founded Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of family members of murder victims and family members of the executed who oppose the death penalty in all cases.
There was no dissent in the room, just a final call from the audience to continue the protest demonstration outside the courthouse where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s fate will be decided.
Full Tsarnaev trial gallery here.
This weeks’ artist of note is Arthur (Art) Lien.
Art is one of three workhorse trial artists in the front row at the Tsarnaev trial. Each day he produces dozens of top-quality images for use by television stations and other media outlets. They will often only use one of the pieces he produces each day. I think they are unable to see the brilliance in the breadth and depth of his visual reportage. Court artists are immersed in the trial and the characters far more completely than anyone else in the room, they are not just human cameras to circumvent inconvenient court rules.