BOSTON — A federal appeals court Friday threw out Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, saying the judge who oversaw the case did not adequately screen jurors for potential biases.
Tsarnaev was sentenced to death following the April 15, 2013 attack, where he and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated homemade bombs at the Marathon’s finish line. Three people were killed and another 260 were wounded.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld much of Tsarnaev’s conviction but ordered a lower-court judge to hold a new trial strictly over what penalty Tsarnaev should receive for the death-penalty-eligible crimes he was convicted of.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers acknowledged at the beginning of his trial that he and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, set off the two bombs at the marathon finish line. But they argued that Dzhokar Tsarnaev is less culpable than his brother, who they said was the mastermind behind the attack.
“But make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution,” the judges said, more than six month after arguments were heard in the case.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers had argued that intense media coverage had made it impossible to have a fair trial in Boston. They also pointed to social media posts from two jurors suggesting they harbored strong opinions even before the 2015 trial started.
The appeals judges, in a hearing on the case in early December, devoted a significant number of questions to the juror bias argument.
They asked why the two jurors had not been dismissed, or at least why the trial judge had not asked them follow-up questions after the posts came to light on the eve of the trial.
The judges noted that the Boston court has a longstanding rule obligating such an inquiry.
Tsarnaev’s attorneys identified a slew of issues with his trial, but said in a brief filed with the court that the “first fundamental error” was the judge’s refusal to move the case out of Boston. They also said one of the jurors, who would go one to become the jury’s foreperson, or chief spokesperson, published two dozen tweets in the wake of the bombings.
One juror had said in Twitter posts that that she was “locked down” with her family during the manhunt and retweeted another post calling Tsarnaev a “piece of garbage,” but later told the court she had not commented on the case or been asked to shelter in place, the defense said. On the day of Tsarnaev’s sentencing, the juror changed her Facebook profile picture to an image that said “BOSTON STRONG,” a rallying cry used in the wake of the bombing, the attorneys said.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers pushed several times to move the trial from Boston, arguing the intense media scrutiny and number of people touched by the bombings in the city would taint the jury pool. But U.S. District Judge George O’Toole refused, saying he believed a fair and impartial jury could be found in the city.
The 1st Circuit said the “pervasive” media coverage featuring “bone-chilling still shots and videos” of the bombing and dayslong manhunt required the judge to run a jury selection process “sufficient to identify prejudice.”
But O'Toole fell short, the judges said.
They said O’Toole deemed jurors who had already formed the opinion that Tsarnaev was guilty qualified “because they answered ‘yes’ to the question whether they could decide this high-profile case based on the evidence.” Yet he didn’t sufficiently dig into what jurors had read or heard about the case, the judges said.
“By not having the jurors identify what it was they already thought they knew about the case, the judge made it too difficult for himself and the parties to determine both the nature of any taint (e.g., whether the juror knew something prejudicial not to be conceded at trial) and the possible remedies for the taint,” the judges wrote.
Tsarnaev was convicted on 30 charges, including conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction. He’s been serving his sentence in a high-security supermax prison in Colorado.
His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a gun battle with police days after the two brothers detonated two pressure cooker bombs near the marathon finish line.
Prosecutors told jurors that the men carried out the attack to punish the United States for its wars in Muslim countries. In the boat where Tsarnaev was found hiding, he had scrawled a confession that referred to the wars and wrote, among other things, “Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”
For the time being, Tsarnaev will remain locked up at the supermax prison pending a new sentencing phase of the trial which will determine if he will return to death row or be sentenced to serve a life sentence.
Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 for the murders of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard and Lingzi Liu in the Marahton Bombings and for the murder of MIT Police officer Sean Collier four days after the bombing. Following the attacks, the city of Boston went into complete lockdown and a manhunt was on for Tsarnaev. Eventually, he was found hiding inside a boat in Watertown.
You can read the full court documents here.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston said they are currently reviewing the opinion and declined further comment at this time.
Former Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer Dic Donohue, who was severely injured in a gunfight with the brothers, said the ruling was not surprising to him.
“And in any case, he won’t be getting out and hasn’t been able to harm anyone since he was captured,” he tweeted.
Mayor Walsh refused to give a direct opinion on the U.S. appeals court ruling to overturn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence, but he says regardless of the ultimate outcome in the case, his focus will always be on supporting the families.
“I’m not gonna make a statement right now on the judges ruling I have not had a chance to talk to all the families,” said Walsh. “I know people are confused with the ruling and there was concern for some families that this day was going to come, They were going to have to relive another trial and they should not have to relive a trial.”
Bostonians fear not only having to relive the tragic events of April 15, 2013, but also the aftermath.
“It is a tough day for the city it’s a tough thing to have to relive years later. Hopefully they do it quickly and get it over with,” said Mike McDobough of Boston. “My daughter’s boyfriend is a police officer and I think even more vivid than the marathon was the events that happened in Watertown with the chase and the shooting. I’m actually not a death penalty proponent but certainly, his actions warranted that and I hope whatever they do he’s going to at least spend the rest of his life in jail.”
“This guy will never see the light of day again,” said Walsh. “He will live within those four walls. He got exactly what he deserved and my thoughts and prayers going out to the family this time. Nothing will ever replace what we lost in 2013. But with each new day, the Boston community continues to find new strength and healing in one another. That’s something that no one can ever take from us.”
Governor Charlie Baker extended his sympathies to survivors and families of victims, saying they all deserve justice.
President Trump also reacted to the news.
Survivor Adrianne Haslet, a dancer who was wounded during the bombings and is now an avid marathoner, issued a very personal statement on her Instagram page. Haslet said she was “livid” at today’s ruling and emphasized she is ready to testify again, if needed.
In a nod to the recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, Haslet said that “without a shadow of a doubt, that the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul to stop racial profiling, and the death penalty is used in far too many cases of injustice.” That being said, she feels the Tsarnaev case is one that warrants the death penalty.
Kim Donohue, the wife of former Police Officer Dic Donohue, issued a statement on her Twitter account regarding the ruling.
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