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Bomber Trial: How Do You Talk To Children About The Death Penalty?

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty points to defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was found guilty and now faces the death penalty. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty points to defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was found guilty and now faces the death penalty. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

Killing is the ultimate bad, right? That’s what we teach our children. So how do we talk to them about the very real possibility, splattered across our screens and newspapers, that we may put a young man to death for his crimes?

“I think he should die,” said my 9-year-old child when I raised the question leading the news this week: whether Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death or life in prison. “If he killed [four] people and injured hundreds and ran from it he should have a very serious consequence.”

“Life in prison is worse,” said my older daughter.

The conversation then turned to what kinds of people commit crimes and why, and by the end, my young daughter was not so sure about the death penalty. Needless to say, it’s complicated.

Earlier this month, Tsarnaev, 21, was convicted on all 30 counts against him and was found responsible for the deaths of three spectators at the 2013 marathon as well as the fatal shooting of an MIT police officer.

Today, defense lawyers are making the case for life in prison for Tsarnaev, rather than the death penalty. The public, is seems, is also leaning in that direction: A recent WBUR poll found that only 31 percent of Boston area residents say they support the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

So how do we talk to our kids about all of this?

Shamaila Khan, Ph.D., is director of behavioral health at the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, a program of Boston Medical Center, and has been attending the Tsarnaev trial regularly, providing support for survivors at the courthouse. She was a responder on the day of the marathon in 2013 working with families and individuals brought to BMC. She has also worked closely with families affected by the bombing and its aftermath, including people in Watertown who were impacted by the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers days after the bombings.

I spoke with Khan about how to help parents talk about these tough issues — life and death, justice and punishment and revenge — with children. Here, edited, is some of our conversation:

RZ: So, as a parent, how do you begin to talk to children about these complex issues?

SK: This is a very controversial topic. It’s hard enough for adults to talk about it, let alone children. Children respond differently based on their developmental level — depending on what age they are and where they are developmentally. But there are three basic things to consider: listening, protecting and connecting.

RZ: OK, can you give some more detail please?

So, first, listen. Ask the children if they’ve heard about this, and what they know. With social media, there’s so much information available and often children know more than parents think. If they have heard about this, listen to what they have to say. Often, our tendency as adults is to start explaining — first let the children tell you what they know. Once you know that, you can figure out how to answer their questions, and find out what they are curious about. If they are expressing opinions at one end of the spectrum [like my daughter], offer them another point of view, maybe something like, ‘Who knows why this person did this?’ and give them more information. Help them to think about it in a more complex way, highlighting the variation on the spectrum. But remember, sometimes not telling the whole truth is important.

Like if a child, say up to 12 years old, asks how exactly does the death penalty get carried out, you might want to explain it in a way that demonstrated how it’s done with the individual experiencing the least amount of pain. You can be kind of vague and abstract. I’ve given examples of a pet that needs to be put to sleep: It happens in a way that doesn’t hurt them. So, a little abstract and not giving all the graphic detail unless asked. You can explain the death penalty by saying, for example, there’s a process in place, and different ways that it can be done. They try to figure out the least painful method, maybe medication or an injection. They used to do worse things but they don’t do that any more. Just keep it simple and abstract.

So you also said “protecting” is important. How does that work in this context?

Children, no matter what you’re talking about, they think about their own self and safety: Where is this person? Can this person get out of prison and hurt me? Is he in the same town where we live? Is he chained up? What kind of person does this and can there be anyone else around to do this to me? So the child’s own sense of safety is triggered. As parents you want to make sure the kids are feeling protected and safe. So just reassuring them is important.

And “connection” — where does that come in?

Connection is about making sure their support system is in place. You make it clear that you are there as a parent or parents, and other people are around, teachers, family members and others. You make sure there are other people and systems in place and say, ‘If you ever want to talk, there are people around to talk to.’ Often children stay curious, and if talking is not what they want, offer them activities that give them other ways to address their feelings: write a letter — What would you say to this person? — write in a journal, create a drawing… Continue reading

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Could Tsarnaev Argue, ‘My Immature, Pot-Impaired Brain Made Me Do It’?

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

By Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD
Guest contributor

This week marked the start of what promises to be a four-month public reckoning: the trial of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If the press reports about the evidence against him are accurate, most of the trial will not be about guilt or innocence; it will be about sentencing. Not a who-done-it, but a why-done-it.

If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the death penalty will be on the table, and the proceedings will turn to a grave question, part jurisprudence and part moral philosophy: Is this defendant the most evil and culpable of all? A human being who deserves the most severe of all punishments?

One thing, I believe, is certain: If this case proceeds to the sentencing phase, the black box everyone will be talking about will be the cranium, and how the brain drives behavior will be the central story.

In these protracted sentencing hearings, the scales of justice balance lists of aggravators and mitigators, all outlined by law.

Aggravating factors in this case might include the political motive for the bombings, the risk posed to others during the course of the Tsarnaev brothers’ dramatic attempt to flee, the “heinous”, “cruel” or “depraved” manner of the crime’s execution, and the substantial planning and premeditation that might have preceded the bombings.

In the end, behavior trumps brain scans.

Mitigating factors — factors that weigh in favor of life in prison rather than a death sentence — cast the broadest net. Any aspect of a defendant’s background, record, character or circumstance is fair game for the defense team. It could try to demonstrate that Tsarnaev had some kind of impaired capacity to appreciate that his acts were wrong or illegal, or that he was under some kind of demonstrable duress. It could also bring to light hardships during his upbringing that limited his opportunities or narrowed his ability to choose wisely.

The defense team has already given public hints as to the central themes of its mitigators. They will feature life within the Tsarnaev family, including Dzhokhar’s relationship with his parents, his brother Tamerlan, and his sisters. Will anything in these family dynamics rise to the level of psychological duress or impaired capacity? There will likely be plenty of traditional testimony from forensic psychologists and psychiatrists regarding whether or not Tsarnaev was under the sway of his radicalized and perhaps dominant older brother, particularly after the Tsarnaev parents left the country. The prosecution will likely counter with a line of evidence regarding Dzohokar’s relative independence and his network of friends and activities outside of the family structure.

Then comes the brain.

Judy Clarke, lead defense attorney and one of the nation’s premier death penalty litigators, will surely not overlook the new body of neuroscientific evidence regarding the immaturity of adolescent brains. In a recent trilogy of cases (known as Roper, Graham, and Miller ) the U.S. Supreme Court was influenced by neuroscientific evidence about the juvenile brain when making sweeping changes in how adolescents are tried and sentenced. The court concluded that adolescent brains were less mature than those of adults in ways which warranted differential treatment under our criminal laws.

Although Tsarnaev was 19 at the time of the bombings, his lawyers might argue that much of this brain research applies, as it outlines a period of relative immaturity that stretches from mid-adolescence all the way into the early 20s. Generally speaking, this research shows that adolescents are less mature, and they are more likely to make ill-considered decisions. They bow to peer influences and respond excessively to thrill seeking and immediate rewards. Think money, sex, drugs and friends.

Beginning in the teens, there are major changes in brain architecture and function that temper these qualities — among them, synaptic pruning of the prefrontal cortex, improved connectivity and changes in dopamine receptors — all of which support self control, delayed gratification and the development of a moral compass.

Here’s the rub. What the research doesn’t show makes it problematic for defense attorneys. The research does not show that adolescents are incapable of making well-considered choices. Quite the contrary. Continue reading

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