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Boston residents prefer life in prison for bombing suspect, if guilty, poll says

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BOSTON » Despite this city’s immersion in a trial that is replaying the horrific details of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the vast majority of Bostonians say in a new poll that if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the admitted bomber, is found guilty, he should be sent to prison for life and not condemned to death.

Given the choice, 62 percent of Boston voters said they would sentence Tsarnaev to prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole, while 27 percent said he should be put to death, according to a poll released Monday by WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

Previous polls have shown Bostonians opposing the death penalty for Tsarnaev. A Boston Globe survey conducted in September 2013, five months after the bombings, found that 57 percent favored life in prison while 33 percent wanted him put to death.

But the WBUR poll is the first to be conducted since Tsarnaev’s lawyers admitted this month that he had participated in the crimes. And it was conducted in the midst of his trial, which has included survivors recounting the graphic details of their limbs being blown off, and of loved ones being killed.

The poll clearly shows that Boston voters have nonetheless not changed their minds about his potential punishment, pointing to the enduring depth of sentiment here against the death penalty.

Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the survey for WBUR, said he initially expected to find that support for the death penalty had intensified, given the grim testimony about the bombings, the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

But, he said, the poll’s results reflect the region’s fundamental liberalism and its longtime opposition to capital punishment.

"It seems voters stuck to their core values," Koczela said.

New England was in the forefront of the movement to abolish capital punishment in the mid-1800s. Massachusetts did not do so until 1984. But the state has not carried out an execution since 1947. And the state Legislature has withstood attempts to revive the death penalty, even in the immediate aftermath of the marathon bombings.

Tsarnaev is facing death now because he has been charged under federal law, not state law. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who personally opposes the death penalty, nonetheless authorized it for Tsarnaev, saying that "the nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision." The Justice Department is determined to get a death sentence and has refused overtures from Tsarnaev to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

Opinion here stands in sharp contrast to that of the nation as a whole. The most recent Gallup survey, from October, says that 63 percent of Americans support the death penalty for convicted murderers. Gallup has not polled nationally on whether Tsarnaev specifically should be put to death.

But generally, legal experts say, the Northeast is the least hospitable section of the country to the death penalty. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated it, the Northeast has carried out four executions, one in Connecticut and three in Pennsylvania; the South, by contrast, has carried out 1,137, with 518 in Texas alone.

Analysts say that several factors explain the attitudes here. John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School, who was involved in death penalty research while teaching at Yale, said liberal politics and higher education, both hallmarks of New England, correlate with anti-death penalty sentiment. In addition, he said, New England has relatively low rates of crime, so fewer people here call for death as punishment.

Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said attitudes in New England toward the death penalty tended to be "utilitarian."

"People think about whether it works, whether it deters crime, whether it makes us safer," Sarat said.

And, he noted, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have the nation’s highest rates per capita of Roman Catholics. Even though church attendance here is relatively low, he said, "the American Catholic Church’s anti-death penalty position has played a role in sustaining the opposition."

The WBUR poll found that opposition toward the death penalty was not as great in the Boston metropolitan region as it was in the city itself, but those in the metro area still preferred a sentence of life in prison over death: 49 percent favored sending Tsarnaev to prison for life, while 38 percent opted for death.

This might hearten the defense, but the poll does not necessarily reflect the views of the jurors who will decide the case. The jury was selected from beyond metro Boston to all of eastern Massachusetts, where support for the death penalty is greater.

The poll interviewed 504 registered voters from March 16-18 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. It interviewed 229 voters in Boston; that portion of the poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.

Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times

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