Roughly five years after a jury handed down a death sentence to the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in May 2015, today a First Circuit panel reversed the sentence while affirming his convictions. This local NPR piece provides the basics and some context:
A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, saying the trial judge didn’t do enough to ensure an unbiased jury.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ordered a new penalty phase of the trial, where a new set of jurors would decide whether to sentence Tsarnaev to life or death. “A core promise of our criminal-justice system is that even the very worst among us deserves to be fairly tried and lawfully punished,” Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in her 182-page opinion.
The federal appeals court said that Judge George O’Toole didn’t do enough to make sure jurors were not tainted by pretrial publicity…. “But as to 9 of the 12 seated jurors, the judge fell short on this front,” Thompson wrote. “The judge qualified jurors who had already formed an opinion that Dzhokhar was guilty — and he did so in large part because they answered ‘yes’ to the question whether they could decide this high-profile case based on the evidence.”
But by not having the jurors identify exactly what they already knew about the case, the judge couldn’t determine whether they were actually fit to serve. The First Circuit Court of appeals issued its decision Friday, after hearing arguments in the case in December 2019.
Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan killed three and injured more than 260 people near the finish line of the marathon in 2013, then murdered a police officer several days later. Tamerlan was killed during the manhunt for the brothers. In 2015, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of all 30 counts against him, and then handed down six death sentences.
Liz Norden, whose two sons J.P. and Paul each lost their right leg in the bombing, supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev. In an interview with WBUR Friday, she said the appeals court decision made her “sick to her stomach.” She said she’s sad at the prospect of a new penalty phase of the trial, but having sat through the first trial, is willing to do it again….
Bombing survivor Michelle L’Heureux said she was “sad and frustrated” by the decision. “We had closure. And now that’s gone,” she said. “This is going to take a toll on so many of the survivors and the families of those who never made it home. I, fortunately, through my own recovery, have gained strength and have found ways to cope with the trauma of what I and so many suffered on that fateful day in April 2013. This is a step back for many. And that is a disgrace.”
The family of Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the bombing at 8 years old, declined to comment. But they pointed to a letter they wrote in 2015, just after Tsarnaev was convicted but before he was sentenced. “To end the anguish, drop the death penalty,” they wrote.
Instead of another sentencing phase, prosecutors and defense attorneys could agree to life in prison for Tsarnaev, avoiding another high-profile, weeks-long session in front of a new jury. Tsarnaev’s attorneys admitted his guilt at the start of the trial in 2015, and sought a plea deal before going to trial….
Among the factors at play in what happens next is a new U.S. Attorney, Andrew Lelling, who replaced Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney who oversaw the Tsarnaev trial. Lelling on Friday said his office was reviewing the decision. Tsarnaev’s federal public defenders said in a statement they were grateful for the court’s straightforward and fair decision….
Tsarnaev is now 27 and remains at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Thompson noted twice in her decision that the court’s ruling does not mean Tsarnaev will ever be released from prison. “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,” she wrote. With another trial, however, he will be back in a Massachusetts courtroom.
The full opinion in this case is available at this link, and I welcome help from readers to identify the good, the bad and the ugly of this notable and very lengthy ruling. I am especially interested in speculation about whether the feds will seek review with the full First Circuit or SCOTUS. If they do, it could be years before we even know if there will be a need for a retrial.