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April 14, 2015
by Lauren Popham, PhD

Conviction of the Boston Marathon Bomber: Will Justice Heal Emotional Wounds?

April 14, 2015 16:02 by Lauren Popham, PhD  [About the Author]

On Wednesday April 8th, the jury reached a verdict on the tragic Boston Marathon bombing case. They decided to convict 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It comes as no surprise given that Dzhokhar has admitted to participating in the April 15, 2013 bombing. His defense team claimed that while he did participate in the events that led up to the bombing, his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was ultimately responsible for the attack, which killed two adults and a child and injured 264 people. The defense attorney, Judy Clarke, painted her client as troubled, misguided young man who was influenced by his radical older brother. Tamerlan, however, cannot be tried for his crimes. Following the bombing, the city was in chaos during a four-day long manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, which culminated in a shootout and the older brother’s death. 

Next Step: Jury Must Decide to Execute or Sentence to Life in Prison

The next step in this case is to determine Tsarnaev’s punishment for his role in the attack. Out of the 30 charges he faces, 17 carry the death penalty. The same jurors who convicted Tsarnaev will now have to determine his fate: to live the remainder of his life in prison or face execution. Making the jury’s decision even more difficult is the fact that the community is divided about the penalty. Some Bostonians would like to see Tsarnaev executed for his crimes, while others are against capital punishment for moral or religious reasons. Standing outside the courthouse, a group representing Roman Catholic bishops was handing out leaflets stating their opposition of the death penalty, saying that life in prison without the possibility of parole would prevent Tsarnaev from doing further harm to society. 

Will Justice Help Heal Wounds? 

Whether Tsarnaev receives life in prison or the death penalty, he will be punished for his role in this heinous attack. Justice will be served for the intentional injury and murder of innocent marathon spectators and participants. What is less clear, however, is whether his punishment will help to mend the community’s collective wounds. In other words, will justice bring peace to those who were affected by the attack? Unfortunately, probably not. 

People may fantasize that making an offender pay for his/her wrongdoing will be sweet, sweet revenge, but research on this topic suggests that making the person pay for his/her crimes oftentimes makes individuals feel worse. In an experiment, Carlsmith, Wilson, and Gilbert (2008) setup an investment game where everyone who participated in the game would benefit equally if they played fairly and cooperated. The researchers secretly put a fake participant into the group who would lead the group to agree to invest their money equally (and therefore everyone would benefit equally). However, when it came time to invest their money, the fake participant would go against the plan that everyone had agreed upon. As a result, the fake participant would win more money at the expense of the rest of the group.    

To examine whether taking revenge made participants feel better, the researchers gave the participants in the game the option to retaliate against the wrongdoer. Taking revenge actually made the participants feel less happy, less satisfied than the group who did not have the opportunity to take revenge. Although justice had been served, they felt worse. 

The reason why revenge is not so sweet: it causes victims to ruminate about the crime, thereby increasing anger rather than decreasing it. How does this research relate to the Tsarnaev case? It means that this trial and the deliberation of the penalty will actually reopen rather than help to heal wounds from the tragedy that occurred two years ago. Still, justice must be served. 

There is, however, a caveat to these findings. Gollwitzer, Meder, and Schmitt (2011) found in their study that revenge can be satisfying if the offender acknowledges and accepts that the punishment fits the crime. Given that Tsarnaev reportedly showed no signs of remorse during the trial, the public should not hold its breath. 


Even though Tsarnaev’s conviction and punishment may not repair the pain he and his brother inflicted on the Boston marathon runners and spectators, justice serves an important purpose in our society in that it prevents repeat offenses from the criminal. Perhaps the best way to heal emotional wounds is through social support systems, which is something we have seen in the past two years as the community and the nation has come together to support and care for those affected by the Boston tragedy.


Bailey, H. (April 8, 2015). Jury finds Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of Boston Marathon bombings. Yahoo News.

Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1316–1324.

Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., & Schmitt, M. (2011). What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge? European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 364–374.

About the Author

Lauren Popham Lauren Popham, PhD

Lauren Popham works at a market research firm in Washington, DC, where she applies her social science perspective and statistical training to research projects focused on retirement, employee benefits, and health and wellness. She received her Ph.D. in psychology, with an emphasis on aging and adult development, from North Carolina State University in 2014.

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