Grieving families of marathon bombing victims face question of life or death for Tsarnaev

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Yahoo News
Krystal Campbell's family visits the Boston Marathon bombing memorial
The parents of marathon bombing victim Krystle Campbell, Patricia and William Campbell, visit the Boston Marathon bombing memorial at Copley Square, June 25, 2013. (Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

There are moments when Lillian Campbell still believes her granddaughter, Krystle, might walk through her front door, with her bright blue eyes, radiant smile and easy laugh.

But that feeling is inevitably followed by the dark realization that Campbell will never see her granddaughter again. Krystle Campbell, 29, was one of the three people killed when two bombs ripped through the crowds packed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15 — causing her family a level of grief they are still struggling to deal with five months later.

“You just feel pain,” Lillian Campbell said. “Her mother and father aren’t coping too well. None of us are. We’ll never forget her, and we’ll never forget what happened, but the steady reminder of it, in the news and people talking about it, it’s almost too much for us sometimes.”

Compounding that grief for the Campbell family and others affected by the bombing is the question of whether suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face the death penalty if he’s convicted — a punishment that has not been handed down in Massachusetts in 66 years.

In 1984, pushed in part by its heavily Catholic population, Massachusetts officially banned the practice for state cases. While it’s still in place for federal cases like Tsarnaev's, the death penalty charge has been rarely invoked — though some wonder if that could change this time.

Tsarnaev, who makes his second court appearance Monday, is facing 30 federal criminal charges in the case, including 17 charges that include the possibility of the death penalty. Those charges include the use of a weapon of a mass destruction resulting in death and the bombing of a public place that resulted in death.

Tsarnaev faces murder charges for the deaths of Campbell, Martin Richard, 8, and Lu Lingzi, 23, who were killed in the marathon blasts. Tsarnaev is also charged with killing MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was shot dead April 18 when Dzhokhar and his 26-year old brother, Tamerlan, were on the run from the police.

Federal prosecutors have been surveying those directly impacted by the bombings since July as they decide what punishment they will formally pursue against Tsarnaev, a 20-year old Cambridge resident of Chechen descent accused of planting two pressure cooker bombs near the marathon finish line.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the plot, was killed during a police shootout on April 19 in Watertown, Mass., when his younger brother ran him over with a car.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty to the charges in July, around the same time the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston sent out a survey to the families of those killed as well as to the more than 260 people injured in the blasts to solicit their feelings about what punishment the suspected bomber should face.

“As you know, this case may involve the death penalty for the defendant Tsarnaev, “ the survey read, according to a copy obtained by the Boston Herald. “Please indicate below as to whether you would be willing to share your thoughts on the death penalty with the prosecution team.”

The results of the survey will be among many factors federal attorneys in Boston will consider as they prepare to make their sentencing recommendation to Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, who will make the final decision on whether to seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston declined to comment on the survey or when the office will officially make its recommendation to Holder. It’s unclear when he will announce his decision.

The case could be a major test for the Justice Department, which has made clear it will prosecute to the fullest extent cases of what it views as terrorism on U.S. soil. But if the department chooses to pursue the death penalty, it could be forced to do so in a state that is largely unsupportive of that practice, even in this case.

A Boston Globe poll released earlier this week found that a majority of Boston residents — 57 percent — favor life in prison for Tsarnaev if he is convicted. Thirty-three percent said they want to see him get the death penalty.

It’s unclear how reflective the poll is of feelings among those directly impacted by the blasts. Several of those injured in the bombings declined to comment when contacted by Yahoo News. The Richards and the Campbells have not said what their preference is; the Lingzi family lives in China and has not said anything publicly about a possible punishment.

The Richard family not only lost their son Martin in the blast. His younger sister, Jane, lost a leg; his mother, Denise, lost vision in one of her eyes; and his father, Bill, suffered a partial hearing loss and is still recovering from injuries to his legs. The family returned home from lengthy hospital stays just last month.

Larry Marchese, a spokesman for the Richard family, said they did not have “anything new” to say on the subject of Tsarnaev’s punishment. He pointed to a statement issued in April after the suspected bomber’s arrest in which the family said that it “trusts that our justice system will now do its job.”

Meanwhile, the Campbell family has wavered back and forth about their feelings on the death penalty for Tsarnaev. Patricia Campbell, Krystle’s mother, told the Boston Globe in July that she was against the death penalty but was reconsidering her position—admitting that, on some days, “an eye for an eye feels appropriate.”

But Lillian Campbell said the family is still undecided and rarely talks about it—instead focusing on just trying to cope with their pain over losing Krystle and how they will emotionally deal with a case whose enormous publicity stands only to increase ahead of a federal trial.

“We just want justice to be served, that’s all,” Campbell said. “It’s been too much for us to deal with. We just want justice. Whatever they decide, that’s it.”