Boston bombing jury excludes some Catholics

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (CNS/Reuters/FBI handout)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (CNS/Reuters/FBI handout)

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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As the quest for a jury in the Boston Marathon bombing trial approaches its fourth week, some of the area's 2 million Roman Catholics are growing frustrated with criteria that effectively disqualify followers of church teachings.

Potential jurors in bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial must be able to impose the death penalty or a life sentence with no possibility of release. That standard eliminates Catholics who heed the catechism of the Catholic church, which says a death sentence is not to be used when "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor." Cases warranting the death penalty "are very rare, if not practically non-existent," according to the catechism, because the government has other means to keep the public safe from convicts.

"It is both ironic and unfortunate that Catholics who understand and embrace this teaching will be systematically excluded from the trial," said Jesuit Fr. James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College. "It is frustrating."

Judge George O'Toole had hoped to hear opening arguments Monday, but they have been delayed because the individual questioning of jurors is taking longer than anticipated. A new start date has not been scheduled.

O'Toole has denied two defense motions to move the trial out of Boston, but the protracted jury selection process is keeping the issue alive.

The defense cited the attitudes of prospective jurors, saying of the 1,373 potential jurors who filled out questionnaires, 68 percent believe Tsarnaev is guilty and 69 percent have a connection or allegiance to people, places or events in the case.

One prospective juror fought back tears as she recalled having met Martin Richards, an 8-year-old who was among the three people killed in the April 15, 2013, twin-bomb explosions, which also injured more than 260. Others described personal ties to injured victims or police, or expressed a belief that Tsarnaev is guilty. A Catholic theologian said he couldn't impose the death penalty.

With hurdles to overcome in jury selection, some local Catholics lament that the pool is likely to be purged of people trained in their faith to grapple with matters of justice and mercy.

Refusing on religious grounds to impose the death penalty "shouldn't be enough to disqualify them," said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist and co-author of American Catholics in Transition. "We're supposed to have a jury of one's peers. And if one's peers are informed by this sort of religious ethos, then that surely deserves some kind of recognition."

Not all local Catholics have qualms about the way jurors are chosen. Fr. Michael McGarry, director of The Paulist Center, a socially progressive Catholic congregation in downtown Boston, is a longtime opponent of capital punishment. Still, he isn't bothered by the fact that he, like others who would refuse to impose death, would be ineligible for the jury if summoned.

"They're doing the right thing by saying you shouldn't allow people who are not open to the death penalty at all," McGarry said. "Nor should you allow people who are eager for blood."

Greater Boston is 46 percent Catholic, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, but religion isn't necessarily a strong shaper of local attitudes. Massachusetts is the fourth least-religious state after nearby New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, according to Gallup, which surveys worship attendance and how important people say religion is in their daily lives.

Yet when faced with extraordinary decisions, even less-observant Catholics turn to church teachings for guidance, according to Dillon. They're apt to do so if tapped for the Tsarnaev trial, she said.

"If they identify as Catholic, part and parcel of why they do that is because they believe these teachings have a lot of value," Dillon said. "They make up their own minds, but it gives them pause" to consider what the church teaches.

Nationwide, 62 percent of Catholics favor the death penalty for murderers, according to the General Social Survey's most recent data from 2012. That is a substantial decline from 30 years ago, when 82 percent of Catholics favored it.

In the interim, the Catholic church ended its support for routine use of capital punishment via Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.

Catholics aren't obligated to heed church teaching on the death penalty, Bretzke said, because the teaching is not considered infallible.

"I don't think it much matters from the defense side" whether a potential juror is Catholic, said Karen Fleming-Gill, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based jury consultant who's worked on 60 capital cases. "There are plenty of Catholics who will impose the death penalty."

[G. Jeffrey MacDonald writes for USA Today.]

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