When Would Tsarnaev Be Executed, If He Was?

by Chris Tognotti

Over two years after the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, and the fate of 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is finally upon us. After a trial in which his defense openly admitted Tsarnaev perpetrated the horrible crime — the marathon bombing killed three people, and another police officer was slain in pursuit of Tsarnaev — there was really only one question left up to the jury to decide: Will Dzhokhar Tsarnaev get the death penalty? And if he did, how long would it take for that sentence to actually be carried out? Well, on May 15 2015, the answer finally came down — he was indeed sentenced to death, which means an entirely new process has only just begun.

It's a well-understood fact of our criminal justice system — a conviction can be appealed. And when it comes to death sentences, it's hugely important, because once the execution is final, to state the obvious, there's no going back. As such, it's tough to figure when Tsarnaev would actually be put to death, even though the 12-member Boston jury has decided to impose the severest penalty.

To find out the answer, it's worth taking a look at history. The politics of the death penalty may vary state by state, sure, and the defense's overt in-court admission of Tsarnaev's guilt could prove problematic in any attempt to appeal. But figuring out an average death row wait time is still likely the best way to form a reasonable expectation. And, by the numbers, here's the simple fact: it takes a long time to execute people in America.

In fact, not only does it take years for most death row inmates to be executed in America, the length of the delay is rising through the years. According to The Economist, about 30 years ago it took an average of six years for a death sentence to be carried out, but by 2011, that figure had swelled to over 16 years.

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Obviously, it's impossible to say just yet whether that trend would hold fast for Tsarnaev. There are still death row stays that run their course surprisingly quicker now and again — Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, a particularly apropos case. McVeigh spent a relatively brief four years on death row before he was put to death, executed just over six years after his attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Were Tsarnaev to follow such a rapid legal trajectory, he'd be executed in 2019, but again, that would be well quicker than average. If he had the usual death row experience in America, he'd be in his late 30s by the time he was killed. This is all very speculative, however — the only real way to find out, as is so often the case, is to wait and see. But this much we now know: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is headed to death row.

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