J. Scott Applewhite / AP
This week, just days after the Boston Marathon for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the United States Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death for his role in the terrorist attack of the race in 2013 The issue in this case is not the guilt of Tsarnaev. The question is whether he was properly sentenced to death and whether he received a fair trial.
Patriots’ Day – April 15, 2013 – dawned with perfect weather for the annual Boston Marathon race. As the runners scaled Heartbreak Hill, a writer reported, at Fenway Park, the Red Sox were “locked in another white-handed duel” with the Tampa Bay Rays. By 2:50 p.m. the elite runners had long finished their runs, the ball game had ended with a Red Sox start run, and many baseball fans had run the mile to the line. arrival to join the jubilant crowd waiting to greet the last 5,700 runners.
Then it happened: two explosions in rapid succession, followed by a ball of fire, smoke, and bloodshed. Children and adults alike were screaming and severed limbs were everywhere as medics, police and passers-by rushed to stop the bleeding.
Three days later, the FBI released surveillance camera photos of two bombing suspects and asked for the public’s help in locating them. The two men were later identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, 19, Dzhokhar. By this time, the brothers, after first separating, had regrouped. After loading Tamerlane’s car with homemade bombs, a handgun, and another shell bomb, they drove past the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they saw a campus police car, turned approached from behind and shot Officer Sean Collier in the head at point blank range.
After that, they hijacked an SUV and stole $ 800 from the car owner’s ATM account, but the owner managed to escape and the police used the car’s tracking device to find it in Watertown, still led by the brothers. Tamerlan was eventually killed after a shootout with the police, but Dzhokar escaped.
In the morning, the hunt for the younger brother gripped the town as Watertown area police went door to door looking for him and telling people to take shelter there.
That night he was found, hidden in a boat under a tarp and covered in blood. He had used a pencil to write a manifesto warning that the mujahedin had “woken up” and that “you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see the sky”.
Although Massachusetts does not apply the death penalty, a jury sentenced him two years later on 30 federal terrorism-related counts. The jury sentenced him to death for six of these crimes. But in July 2020, the Boston-based US Court of Appeals overturned the death sentences.
In her opinion for a unanimous circuit panel, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote that a “fundamental promise of our criminal justice system is that even the worst of us deserve to be tried fairly and legally punished.” Despite a “diligent effort,” the appeals court said, the trial judge “did not meet with th[at] Standard.”
Then-President Donald Trump called the move “ridiculous,” and the administration quickly expedited an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, even as it carried out 13 more federal executions over the course of the year. of his last seven months in office. These were the first federal executions since 2003, and in each case the Supreme Court rejected requests for last-minute intervention.
Although the Biden administration subsequently halted all remaining federal executions to review government policy, it continued to defend the death sentences in the Tsarnaev case.
There are essentially two issues before the Supreme Court, both involving decisions of the trial judge. Unlike the judge in the Oklahoma City bombing case, which moved the trial out of state due to the potentially damaging effect of pre-trial publicity, the judge in the case Tsarnaev concluded that any prejudice in Boston could be dealt with by carefully screening potential jurors. .
But in arguments before the federal appeals court, the defense claimed the trial judge did not do this, refusing to probe the social media posts of potential jurors. Defense lawyer Daniel Habib, for example, appointed the juror who would ultimately become the foreman.
Juror 286 falsely denied posting on Twitter that Tsarnaev was’ junk ‘… and Juror 138 falsely denied discussing this case on Facebook, where a friend urged him to’ play the part, to sit on the jury and send Tsarnaev to prison where he would be taken care of. ”
Additionally, Habib said when the judge received documentary evidence of this alleged misconduct during the selection process, he declined to investigate, concluding that the inaccuracies were innocent lapses of memory.
“This case is the first where the court is faced with an almost unlimited amount of information via social media,” said George Kendall, defense attorney for the capital. “So it was really surprising, to say the least, that when the judge ruled, ‘OK, we can do it in Boston’, that kind of question was not put to everyone. world.”
The second argument of the case concerns the sanction phase of the trial, where the defense is supposed to have considerable latitude to present mitigating evidence. The appeals court ruled that the trial judge wrongly excluded evidence of the older brother’s involvement in a triple murder two years before the marathon bombing, a murder in which he allegedly slaughtered three men as jihad act on the anniversary of the 9/11 attack. The crime remained unsolved until a month after the marathon bombing, when Tamerlan’s phone records led FBI agents to a man who admitted to being at the crime scene with Tamerlan. But the interview turned violent and the man was shot dead by law enforcement officers.
The defense wanted to introduce the facts of the previous murders by having the FBI agent in the case read his affidavit for a search warrant. Defense attorney Habib told the appeals court that had the jury heard evidence of the triple murder, it would have allowed the defense to compare Tamerlane’s brutal story with his 19-year-old younger brother, a student without criminal record.
But prosecutor William Glasser responded that delving into the triple murder would have been a distraction.
“This is too big a leap to conclude that all of this evidence on the murders and the details of it were relevant to the offense in this case,” he said. “There is ample evidence that ‘the younger brother’ himself was influenced by a radical Islamic ideology and was not under the sway of his brother.”
This will all be debated on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston Marathon race uneventful, for the first time in more than two years since the start of the pandemic, and two days after the Red Sox beat the Rays again. another nail rodent and with yet another running race.
A Supreme Court decision is expected by the summer.