Is the Death Penalty About the Murderer, or Who We Are as a Nation?

05/18/2015 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

The death penalty is an issue that I have spent a good deal on. As a freshman state representative, in April 2013 I gave my maiden speech in the Massachusetts House of Representatives opposing the reintroduction of the death penalty in Massachusetts. In my time researching and writing about the death penalty and talking with politicians and citizens I have observed a pattern that explains some of the different opinions about the death penalty.

In the most recent high profile example that we have all been witness to -- the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber -- we have some people who support the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and some who do not. The pattern that I have observed is that people who focus on death as an appropriate punishment for the offender seem to focus on the offender. People who say that the death penalty should not be applied seem to focus on who we are as a nation. Let me explain.

Giving the Death Penalty is About the Murderer

The point of view that I hear articulated from people who espouse the death penalty is one where the focus is on the murderer. Proponents often say "why should he get to live after what he did?" They may say that "the death penalty is the appropriate justice for the crime." They say, "He is getting what he deserves."

Some proponents have said that giving the murderer the death penalty is a statement of who we are as a nation because we are making a statement that we do not tolerate such heinous murders. But at the core of this argument is still a focus on the murderers' crime and not who we are as a nation; the notion that we do not tolerate such crimes is secondary to the crime, which is the primary focus of that argument.

Not Giving the Death Penalty is About Who We Are

The other perspective is one where I hear people say that the death penalty should not be applied not because the offender deserves to be spared, but we as a society are better than that. We have grown as a society to one where our values of compassion for all life -- even a life of a murderer -- outweighs the need for retribution of the same caliber as the crime.

I have also heard that to give a citizen the death penalty via lethal injection, electrocution, hanging or by any other means is infact a cruel punishment and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and therefore a deviation of who we are as a nation. The Eighth Amendment is a core principle to who we are, just as much as the First Amendment, the Second Amendment or any other Amendment that defines who we are as a nation.


We all know of the tragedy that the Tsarnaev and his brother are responsible for. His guilt is not an issue. Four innocent people lost their lives and nearly 280 non-fatal injuries were the result of his and his brother's crime. I have personally met, talked to at length and even had dinner with more than one victim of that tragedy.

People debate the academic merits of the death penalty. Both sides claim to be right on the issue. From my perspective the question asking if the death penalty deters heinous murder or not has been largely settled. We also know that the death penalty costs more than life in prison because of the cost of the trial and the lengthy, yet necessary appeals process. Without the long appeals process, 152 innocent people would have been executed, clearly reminding us of the fallibility of the judicial process and the need for appeals.

The death penalty is about both, the murder and who we are as a nation. But it is different for different people. It seems that what someone is focusing on is a large determinant of whether or not they support the death penalty. If they focus on the offender, they tend to support it. If they focus on who we are as a society, they tend to oppose it.

Obviously, no single variable can create a dichotomy that explains all rationales for or against a particular phenomenon. But this is a pattern that I have observed that needs to be scientifically measured to determine if it is in fact a valid theory.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul has a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard, and a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC. Paul can be reached at or 508-639-9511.