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Wrestling with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death penalty sentence

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, center, stands with his defense attorneys as his death sentence is read in federal court in the penalty phase of his trial in Boston, Friday, May 15, 2015. Credit: AP / Jane Flavell Collins

There may never be an opportunity to have a purer philosophical conversation about the death penalty than the one afforded by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's ferocious attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

On Friday, the Boston jury that convicted Tsarnaev of 30 charges last month, 17 of which can be punished with the death penalty, imposed that penalty. Jurors actually sentenced him to death on six counts, creating a surreal truth: He can't pay what he owes for this bloody act.

Usually, the debate over the morality of society punishing a killer by killing is overtaken by the iffiness of justice. Not here.

With DNA evidence overturning so many convictions and prosecutorial misconduct seemingly cropping up more regularly, are we absolutely sure Tsarnaev really did it? Yes, we're really sure he and his brother set off bombs that killed three people and injured hundreds. Cameras captured it, and he doesn't deny it.

Was he, perhaps, the victim of a biased society or an overly aggressive prosecutor? Did he receive poor counsel? Is he mentally handicapped, perhaps, or traumatized?

No. Rarely has any case been more scrutinized and more effort been made to ensure everything is done right to someone who so clearly did wrong. His trial was like the trials of Nazis in Nuremberg after World War II. When you absolutely know and can easily prove the suspect did it, there's no need for prosecutorial shortcuts. He had excellent counsel. His rights were respected. He is, I believe, deeply flawed mentally and spiritually. But he is not damaged in a way that bars him from this punishment.

So, absent all these side issues, what do we feel about the death penalty? When we know the killer did the killing, and he knows right from wrong and he's not being railroaded and he's not being treated unfairly because of his race or religion?

I go back and forth on it, personally. The libertarian science fiction master Robert A. Heinlein had a wonderful question that applies, and which always comes to me at times like this. To paraphrase, he asked when it is moral for a group of people to commit an act that is immoral for an individual.

It's a damn fine question. How could it be that "I" cannot kill morally, but "we" can?

I believe Tsarnaev was deeply defective. I don't believe he would have committed such an act otherwise. I'm angry at Tsarnaev, but at the same time, it's not the right emotion. When a person is that flawed, I shouldn't be angry at him or her, any more than I would be angry at a beast driven violently mad.

You don't get angry with a dog for having rabies. But you do kill him, because he is senseless and dangerous and, probably, suffering. You do it even though it is not a deterrent.

If I were the one forced to decide, I would opt to keep Tsarnaev alive, isolated and healthy until he died of natural causes.

The answer I find to Heinlein's question in my heart is one that would never work for our society, but I'll share it anyway. I'd rather we, as a community, not impose the death penalty. But I couldn't blame an individual, especially one from whom Tsarnaev took a loved one, for putting the man out of his misery, and out of ours.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.