“Refugee Status” as a Mitigating Factor in Death Penalty Cases

by Jason Dzubow on February 13, 2014

in Asylees and Refugees

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The U.S. Department of Justice recently gave notice that it would be seeking the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Mr. Tsarnaev and his brother allegedly killed three people in the bombing and one more person during their flight. Over 260 people were maimed or injured.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The DOJ determined that the death penalty is appropriate in the case because of the “heinous, cruel and depraved manner” that the murders were committed, that there was “substantial planning and premeditation,” multiple victims, and a “vulnerable victim” (a reference to Martin Richard, an eight year old boy killed in the attack). The notice also mentions several “non-statutory aggravating factors,” including the fact that Mr. Tsaenaev–

received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people in the United States.

Other “non-statutory aggravating factors” are that Mr. Tsarnaev targeted the “iconic” Boston Marathon and that he showed a lack of remorse for his crimes.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. I don’t believe it serves as a deterrent, and I do think there are serious racial and class disparities in its application. In addition, there is a real danger that innocent people or people with mental disabilities will be put to death. On the other hand, if the death of the murderer brings comfort or closure or a sense of safety to the victim’s friends and family, I believe those feelings are legitimate and should be given considerable weight.

In some ways, the Tsarnaev case is less complicated than the average death penalty case. There are no issues (at least I don’t see any) regarding race, class or mental health, and there seems to be no doubt that Mr. Tsarvaev is guilty. But what about the fact that Mr. Tsarnaev is a refugee?

In its death penalty notice, the DOJ mentions Mr. Tsarnaev’s asylum status as an aggravating factor–We helped him by granting him asylum, and then he betrayed us by bombing the marathon. Mr. Tsarnaev’s attorneys will, no doubt, view his asylum status quite differently, and could try to use that status as a mitigating factor. The relevant U.S. Code section (18 U.S.C. § 3592) lists several possible mitigating factors, including the following:

Impaired capacity.— The defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the defendant’s conduct or to conform conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, regardless of whether the capacity was so impaired as to constitute a defense to the charge.

Duress.— The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, regardless of whether the duress was of such a degree as to constitute a defense to the charge.

Disturbance.— The defendant committed the offense under severe mental or emotional disturbance.

Other factors.— Other factors in the defendant’s background, record, or character or any other circumstance of the offense that mitigate against imposition of the death sentence.

The first three factors seem like a bit of a stretch, but you can imagine some type of argument tying Mr. Tsarnaev’s mental state to the trauma of being a refugee. Indeed, I would guess that there are at least two types of trauma that refugees suffer: The trauma of the events that led them to flee their country, and the trauma of the refugee/resettlement process itself. There are certainly examples of refugees who engage in self-destructive behavior (I’ve written about that issue here), but without something more–such as a diagnosed mental illness–I doubt refugee status alone would qualify Mr. Tsarnaev for mitigation under one of the first three factors listed above.

The fourth factor–the catch all–provides the most likely opportunity for Mr. Tsarnaev to demonstrate how his status as a refugee might mitigate his punishment. He could argue that he was young, isolated in a new country, heavily reliant on his older brother (who participated in the bombing and was later killed), and influenced by terrible events in his homeland. While I can believe that Mr. Tsarnaev’s refugee status helped shape, and perhaps distort, his worldview, I have a much harder time accepting these problems as a mitigating factor here.

Had his crime been substance abuse, or even some type of impulsive, violent act, I could see how refugee status might be viewed as a mitigating factor and how there might be opportunities for positive intervention in his life. But in this case, Mr. Tsarnaev and his brother planned, prepared, and carried out a terrorist attack. This is not the type of crime that results from a traumatic past. It is the type of crime that comes from having a distorted world view and a total disregard for human life.

I have known many refugees, and many people who have suffered severe trauma–much more severe than anything I have heard about in the Tsarnaev case. While most such people work hard to overcome their past difficulties, some turn to drugs or alcohol; others commit crimes. But none are like the Tsarnaevs. Their’s was a carefully planned and orchestrated act. To allow Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to use his refugee status as a mitigating factor would be an insult to the many refugees who have overcome their terrible past. While there may be other factors that allow Mr. Tsaenaev to avoid the death penalty, his status as a refugee should not be one of them.

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