Why We Try the Guilty

I am bothered by all the discussion over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I am bothered by the outbursts, the ignorance, and the “I love America!” outcry that inevitably breaks out when a tragedy on this scale occurs. I have been told this means I am sympathizing with terrorism. But sympathy and concern are not the same.

I want justice to be done for both the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and for Tsarnaev. We’ve heard the calls to treat him as an enemy combatant, to summarily pronounce him guilty, even to kill him in the public square without trial. There were even calls to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts for this one occasion. But justice is not something you do to someone, it’s something you do for someone. Justice is a service, not a punishment. It is because of the faith I have in this country, the belief I have in the rightness of our justice system, and yes, even the patriotic love I have for the United States that I say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves the chance to be tried before a jury of his peers.

Not because I think he’s innocent. This is the modern age. There is overwhelming evidence of his guilt. I expect him to plead guilty to avoid the circus, because a jury of his peers is certainly going to convict him. He is going to prison for the rest of his life, no matter what happens. But regardless of how obviously guilty he is, this does not mean that we get to skip right to the sentencing. Tsarnaev is guaranteed certain rights in the Constitution. And he ought to receive every last one.

Tsarnaev immigrated to the country legally and for a legitimate purpose ““ legal asylum as a Chechen refugee. He is not a foreign national who entered domestic soil for the sole purpose of causing harm, therefore he is not an enemy combatant. He cannot be indefinitely detained or summarily judged. He is entitled to the criminal rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, the same as you or me.

We should want to give him those rights, too. Every time we deny someone their full rights ““ jury, fair and speedy trial, secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and unusual punishment ““ we erode just a little bit of the freedoms won for us by our founding fathers. And we don’t just erode them for the obviously guilty, we erode them for the possibly innocent. This is one issue where we cannot afford to give an inch. The criminal justice system is time-consuming. But it’s important to go through all those steps. Every time we follow all the rules, we’re keeping those rights safe and available for everyone.

This country is a great place. And while the Great American Experiment is still running, and does not always run smoothly, I firmly believe it’s headed in the right direction. Here, everyone is, or at least should be, treated fairly and equally under the law. Even you. Even me. Even a terrorist.

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amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

6 thoughts on “Why We Try the Guilty”

  1. This is -I like to believe- emotions running high. Seeing him standing in a court getting ‘Guilty’ doesn’t sate blood thirst, seeing him hanged might. For a while. The few people around me who yell similar things I like to show the imagery of Al Qaeda and the likes, giving out the kind of “justice” they ask for. That usually helps.

  2. Thank you. I too love the Constitution and The Bill or Rights. I was distressed that the “Enemy Combatant” status might have been applied. It always seems to me that circumventing the system in place is another way of saying that people don’t trust our system to do things their way. While not always pretty, the system generally works. And for that, I am relieved.

  3. “Every time we deny someone their full rights – jury, fair and speedy trial, secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and unusual punishment – we erode just a little bit of the freedoms won for us by our founding fathers. And we don’t just erode them for the obviously guilty, we erode them for the possibly innocent. This is one issue where we cannot afford to give an inch.”

    This, just this.

    I have been avoiding stories about Boston, but decided to stop in because it’s PMag. Thank you for writing such an eloquent piece. I know there is a famous saying about first they come for the others, then they come for us. Something like that.

    1. First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
      Because I was not a Socialist.
      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
      Because I was not a Jew.
      Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
      ~Martin Niemoller

      It’s one of my very favorite poems. Thanks for your kind words.

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