Title image: Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev (second from right) with a friend and wrestling coaches at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
I’m writing this a few days late because, honestly, I’ve been in shock since Friday afternoon. That’s the day when, as many of you probably have already heard, the First Circuit Court reversed Jahar’s death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase. They also vacated three of his actual convictions — ones having to do with the residual clause of a statute under which he was convicted for possession of the Ruger that killed Officer Sean Collier (which has been discussed on this blog here a few years ago). We haven’t had a chance to go through the entire court decision (which you can also read here), but I thought addressing it in at least a preliminary way was in order.
Such as, what does this mean?
It’s a victory, unequivocally. My prevailing emotion has been relief. This means no one can execute Jahar any time soon, an especially comforting fact since the Trump administration recently resumed executing federal prisoners. It also opens the door to a slew of other legal challenges in Jahar’s case. I’ll leave the in-depth legal analysis for my father once we’ve had a chance to read and digest the decision, but as he put it, “There were three possible outcomes: an A+ [overturning the death sentence and all convictions], an A- [overturning just the death sentence], and an F [upholding the convictions and death sentence]. We got the A- outcome.” Although I was cautiously optimistic after attending the appeal hearing last December, ever since the death sentence verdict back in 2015, I never expected a court decision to go Jahar’s way this early in the process. Given the numerous systemic problems plaguing the American justice system, any favorable outcome to a defendant is extraordinary and should be celebrated.
That said, this fight is far from over. As my research over the last five years has revealed, a new penalty phase is not sufficient to right the wrongs present in Jahar’s case. I strongly disagree with the First Circuit judges’ opinion that Jahar should remain incarcerated for the rest of his life. There are far too many errors and inconsistencies in the court record that suggest not only virulent anti-Muslim prejudice toward him, perpetrated by law enforcement and government prosecutors, but in many instances cast significant doubt on his guilt in the first place. Justice will never exist for Jahar until these errors are corrected and he is given a legitimate chance to defend himself.
It is my sincerest hope that his lawyers will pursue this angle for him in the future. In the mean time, it is incumbent upon those of us who care about fairness in the American justice system to understand that this case is not an outlier, but a cog in a larger mass incarceration machine designed to entrap people like Jahar. Although through my years of research I have come to understand him as a thoughtful, intelligent and kind-hearted person, our justice system cares nothing for his individual qualities. In their eyes he is nothing more a Muslim and an immigrant — that is, part of a population that must be controlled. Through decades of Republican-led and Democrat-encouraged coalitions like the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the Trump Administration’s racist and draconian immigration policies, our prison system’s main purpose has become to house an increasingly expanding list of societal “undesirables.”
I know I have an international audience, but for my fellow Americans, I implore you: if you care about Jahar, please take political action to support progressive policies aimed at prison reform and ending mass incarceration. It took me years to realize just how interconnected these issues are, and to face the terrible truth that all the egregious and arbitrary injustices in Jahar’s case do not exist as an exception to the rule, but as a perfect example of it. If we can chip away at the unfair laws holding him where he is, I believe we can make a difference in his life and the lives of many others.
That’s all for now. I just want to say congratulations to Jahar, his family and his lawyers, and thank you to everyone who has stayed interested in this case for the last five years, encouraging me to investigate it and aiding with the effort. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, and I think it is more important than ever that Jahar’s story — the real story — reach as many people as possible.