Maybe if he had shown an ounce of remorse.
During 15 days of anguished testimony at his trial in Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat stone-faced. Nothing moved him.
A police officer described how he had tried to resuscitate a young woman, Krystle Campbell, who had been blown half apart by one of the bombs Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, set off at the Boston Marathon on April 13, 2013. When the officer compressed her chest, he said, smoke came out of her mouth.
A second officer described how he had begged another young woman, Lingzi Lu, not to die. “Stay with us,” he said. “You can do this, stay strong.” She could not stay with us.
Another witness, Roseann Sdoia, described how she had looked down at her foot after the blast and saw what she thought was a sandal hanging from her ankle. Then she realized “that was just my foot dangling.”
Tsarnaev sat and maybe he listened. But he showed no emotion except to cry just once, when his aunt testified about what a good boy he was. He cried for himself.
This editorial page has long been opposed to capital punishment. We don’t trust it. We’ve seen too many innocent people put on Death Row. We’ve read the studies that say it does not deter crime. We have noticed that all the worst nations, not the best, resort to capital punishment. We believe Americans are better than that.
We believe Tsarnaev should have been sentenced to life in prison. Let him stew in a cell. Let his crimes wash over his conscience in time. But we won’t lie. We also can’t work up much compassion for Tsarnaev, who was sentenced by a federal jury Friday to death by lethal injection.
Maybe if Tsarnaev had taken the stand and admitted to some small human emotion. Instead, Sister Helen Prejean, the “Dead Man Walking” nun, testified that he had told her, personally, that “no one should have to suffer” the way his victims did. Human emotion, perhaps, but once removed.
Maybe if Tsarnaev had not flipped the bird to a security camera after he was caught.
Maybe if he had not gone shopping for milk 20 minutes after killing three people and injuring 260 others.
Maybe if he had not written that note while hiding in a boat in a backyard. “Now I don’t like killing innocent people,” he scrawled, “but in this case it is allowed because America needs to be punished.”
Maybe if he had been his own man. This is possible, even at 19. Maybe if he had stood up to his brother, the aspiring jihadi, and dug deep for a better moral compass.
Maybe if he had not placed a backpack full of explosives on a sidewalk among happy people cheering for runners in a marathon. People cheering for the best in us.
Maybe if he had not placed his bomb just four feet away from small children. Or did he really believe that killing little Martin Richard, just eight years old, would terrorize America rather than add to the nation’s resolve?
Maybe if Tsarnaev had understood what the United States, his family’s adopted home, is all about — tolerance, democracy, a fair chance. Ideals constantly shortchanged in the practice, yes, but no less real. The pursuit is true.
Tsarnaev will not be executed any time soon. His legal appeals will drag on for years.
In the meantime, at least, he will be locked away in a federal Supermax prison, ADX in Colorado. He will be held in complete isolation for at least 23 hours a day, fed through a slot in a cell door.
He will ask himself if this is civilized.
Maybe if he had asked that question before.