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SCOTUS Reinstates Boston Marathon Bomber’s Death Sentence

by Mark Wilson

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas on March 4, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reversing a lower appellate court to conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding a juror-screening question as well as potentially mitigating evidence.

After emigrating with their parents from Chechnya to Massachusetts in the early 2000s, Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, began downloading Al-Qaeda propaganda, from which they learned to fashion a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs they detonated at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. The blasts killed two women and an 8-year-old boy, maiming scores more.

The brothers fled the scene, but as investigators closed in three days later, the duo approached Sean Collier, a 27-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer, and shot him five times at close range, once between the eyes.

They then carjacked and robbed a civilian driving home from work, Dun Meng, who escaped on foot. Police tracked his SUV to Watertown and cornered the Tsarnaevs, who engaged them in a street battle. Tamerlan was apprehended when he ran out of ammunition, but as police attempted to handcuff him, Dzhokhar sped toward them in the SUV, striking and fatally injuring his brother before escaping on foot. He was caught the next day.

A federal grand jury indicted Tsarnaev on 17 capital offenses, and the case proceeded to trial. For a pool of 1,373 prospective jurors, the district court rejected one of 100 questions on the parties’ screening form that asked them to list what they had learned about the case from media sources. The court said that such a broad, “unfocused” question was “too unguided” and would “cause trouble” by producing “unmanageable data” of minimal value that would dominate the entire voir dire.

Once 12 jurors were seated, Tsarnaev did not contest the charges against him, and the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts. During the penalty phase, the defense argued that Tsarnaev should not be put to death because his domineering older brother was the mastermind behind the crime and pressured him into participating. To that end, they sought to introduce evidence that Tamerlan committed an unsolved 2011 triple murder in Waltham.

The district court denied the motion. Without that evidence, the jury ultimately found a death sentence was warranted on six of the 17 capital offenses. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit later vacated the death sentences, however, finding that the district court abused its discretion in excluding the requested voir dire question, as well as the Waltham murder evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, reinstating the death sentences. “Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Justice Thomas wrote. Noting that the Sixth Amendment guarantees him a fair trial before an impartial jury, Thomas concluded, “He received one.”

“The District Court did not abuse its broad discretion by declining to ask about the content and extent of each juror’s media consumption regarding the bombings,” Thomas continued, calling the trail court’s jury selection process “both eminently reasonable and wholly consistent with this Court’s precedents.”

“The Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise,” Thomas declared.

The exclusion of Tsarnaev’s proposed mitigating evidence was similarly reasonable and not an abuse of discretion, the Court concluded. “Dzhokhar sought to divert the sentencing jury’s attention” with the earlier triple homicide his brother committed, Thomas wrote, but “there was no allegation that Dzhokhar had any role in that crime,” and not “any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties were dead.” So the trial court “did not abuse its discretion when finding that the evidence lacked probative value, would confuse the jury, and ultimately would be nothing more than ‘a waste of time.’”

Tsarnaev was represented by Washington, D.C. attorney Ginger D. Anders of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP. See: United States v. Tsarnaev, 142 S. Ct. 1024 (2022).

In a letter to the Boston Globe on April 16, 2015, the parents of a child killed in the bombing asked prosecutors not to pursue the death penalty, explaining that doing so “could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” something they hoped their “two remaining children do not have to grow up with.”

According to Michael Meltsner, Law professor at Northeastern University, “This is a narrow decision about a particular case, so there’s no general applicability.” But he said the ruling should indicate the Court’s unwillingness to roll back the death penalty. “The present Supreme Court is an ideological one that’s not sensitive to opinion polls or popular views ... I see no evidence that the court is interested in changing the death penalty.” 

Additional sources: Boston Globe, Huntington News

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Related legal case

United States v. Tsarnaev