Teachable Instant: Tsarnaev & the Death Penalty

Through a quiz and brief discussion, students consider Tsarnaev's death sentence and growing opposition to capital punishment.   

Ask students if they heard about the recent sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the "Boston Marathon bomber." Elicit or explain:

On May 15, 2015, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his role in the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured hundreds. Tsarnaev admitted that he and his brother planted the bombs (and shot an MIT police officer) in retaliation for U.S. attacks on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the sentencing hearing, the defense attempted to show that Dzhokhar was under the influence of his brother Tamerlan, who was killed by police after the bombing. The jury had to decide between a sentence of life in prison or death. They chose death.

Massachusetts and 17 other states have abolished the death penalty, and in an April poll, only 20 percent of people in Massachusetts said Tsarnaev should be executed.  (Among those opposing the death penalty was the family of Martin Richard, the eight-year-old who was killed by the bomb that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed only a few feet away.) Tsarnaev was charged under federal law, though, which does provide for the death penalty in some circumstances. 

People who oppose capital punishment in all cases are excluded from trials involving the death penalty.


Death Penalty Quiz

Have your students take this quiz.

1. How many countries (of about 190 in the world) have abolished the death penalty?

a) 20
b) 40
c) 60
d) 141

2. What percent of death row inmates is African American? (About 13 percent of people in the U.S. identify themselves as African American.)

a) 98%
b) 42%
c) 79%
d) 21%

3. The FBI Forensics Lab gave flawed testimony in what percent of trials they participated in?

a) .8%
b) 4%
c) 22%
d) 95%

4. According to Amnesty International, how many death row inmates could not afford their own lawyer?

a) fewer than 20%
b) almost all
c) half
d) 63%


  1. 141 nations have no death penalty. Five countries (China, Iran, Iraq, United States and Pakistan) account for the overwhelming majority of executions.
  2. 42% of death row inmates are African American.
  3. The Justice Department and FBI acknowledge almost 96% flawed testimony in the 268 trials reviewed so far. (This includes 32 death penalty cases.)
  4. In "almost all" cases, the defendant could not afford a lawyer.


Who opposes the death penalty?

Those who support the death penalty argue, among other things, that it is an effective deterrent to murder and that it provides solace to the families of victims. A majority of Americans still favor capital punishment.

However, polls show that support has been slipping. Part of the reason is that DNA testing has proven the innocence of hundreds of people who had been wrongfully convicted. Groups including the Innocence Project have helped 20 prisoners awaiting death establish their innocence. Death penalty opponents have other reasons for their stance as well.

  • Some oppose killing on moral or religious grounds:
    Capital punishment "contradicts God's plan for man and society."
    - Pope Francis
  • Some opponents cite the Bill of Rights:
    "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." 
    - Eighth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

  • Many argue that racial bias puts a disproportionate number of African Americans on death row:
    "Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences." 
    - Report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee


Have the class discuss the following questions:

  • The Tsarnaev defense team brought witnesses to testify that life imprisonment was a harsher penalty than execution. Do you agree?
  • The judge in the Tsarnaev trial repeatedly denied the defense request to move the trial out of Boston because of the emotional impact of the bombing in the Boston area. Should the trial have been moved?
  • Should jurors who oppose the death penalty be excluded from death penalty cases?
  • Should the opinions of victims' families affect the outcome of death penalty cases?