Boston Marathon bomber case reaches Supreme Court: NPR

The U.S. Supreme Court is due to hear the federal government’s appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned the death sentence of convicted Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP


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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The U.S. Supreme Court is due to hear the federal government’s appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned the death sentence of convicted Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

This week, a few days after the Boston Marathon took place for the first time since the pandemic began, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death for his role in the terrorist bombing of the race in 2013. The question in the case is not Tsarnaev’s fault. That is, whether he was properly sentenced to death and whether he had a fair trial.

Patriots’ Day – April 15, 2013 – began with perfect weather for the annual Boston Marathon. While the runners climbed Heartbreak Hill, reported a writer, in Fenway Park, the Red Sox were “locked in yet another white-knuckle duel” with the Tampa Bay Rays. By 2:50 p.m., the elite runners had long since completed their run, the ball game had ended with a Red Sox walk-off run, and many of the baseball fans had walked the mile to the finish line to join the cheering crowds waiting to greet the final 5,700 runners.

Then it happened: two explosions in quick succession followed by a fireball, smoke and carnage. Children and adults screamed, and severed limbs were everywhere as doctors, police and spectators ran to stop the bleeding.

Three days later, the FBI released surveillance camera footage of two bomb suspects and asked for public assistance in finding them. The two men were later identified as 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar. Then, after they had first divorced, the brothers had been reunited. After loading Tamerlan’s car with pipe bombs, a pistol and another grenade launcher, they drove past the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they saw a campus police troop car, approached from behind and shot Officer Sean Collier in the head at idle.

They then drove an SUV and stole $ 800 from the car owner’s ATM account, but the owner managed to escape, and police used the car’s tracking device to find it in Watertown, which was still being driven by the brothers. Tamerlan was eventually killed after an exchange of gunfire with police, but Dzhokar escaped.

In the morning, the hunt for the younger brother captured the town as police in the Watertown area went from door to door looking for him, asking people to shelter on the spot.

That night he was found hidden in a boat under a tarpaulin and covered in blood. He had used a pencil to write a manifesto warning that the mujahedin was “awakened” and that “you are fighting against men who look into the barrel of your pistol and see the sky.”

Although Massachusetts has no death penalty, a jury two years later convicted him of 30 federal terror-related charges. The jury sentenced him to death for six of these crimes. But in July 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston overturned the death sentences.

In her opinion before a unanimous circuit panel, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote that a “core promise of our criminal justice system is that even the very worst of us deserve to be reasonably tried and legally punished.” Despite a “diligent effort”, the appellate court said, the judge “did not meet th[at] standard.”

At the time, President Donald Trump called the decision “ridiculous,” and the administration quickly hastened an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though it carried out 13 other federal executions in the last seven months in office. These were the first federal executions since 2003, and in each case, the Supreme Court rejected 11-hour pleas to intervene.

Although the Biden administration would later halt all remaining federal executions to review government policy, it has continued to defend the death sentences in the Tsarnaev case.

There are basically two issues before the Supreme Court, both of which involve decisions made by the judge. Unlike the judge in the Oklahoma City bombing case who moved the trial out of state due to the potentially damaging effect of publicity before the trial, the judge in the Tsarnaev case concluded that any prejudice in Boston could be addressed by carefully screening potential jurors.

However, in arguments before the Federal Court of Appeal, the defense argued that the trial judge did not do so and refused to investigate the potential jury members’ social posting. Defense attorney Daniel Habib, for example, pointed to the jury that would eventually become chairman.

Juror 286 erroneously refused to post on Twitter that Tsarnaev was a ‘trash can’ … and jury 138 erroneously refused to discuss this case on Facebook, where a friend urged him to ‘play the role, sit on the jury and send Tsarnaev to prison where he would be taken care of. ‘”

Furthermore, Habib said that when the judge was presented with evidence of this alleged misconduct during the selection process, he refused to investigate and concluded that the misinformation was innocent omissions to remember.

“This case is the first case in which the court is confronted with an almost unlimited amount of information through social media,” said George Kendall, a defense attorney. “So it was, to say the least, surprising that when the judge ruled ‘OK, we can do this in Boston,’ that kind of question was not asked of everyone.”

The second argument in the case is centered on the criminal phase of the trial, where the defense is presumed to have a wide margin to present mitigating evidence. The appeals court ruled that the judge erroneously ruled out evidence of the big brother’s involvement in a triple murder two years before the marathon bombing, a murder in which he allegedly cut the throats of three men as a jihadist on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The crime remained unsolved until a month after the marathon bombing, when Tamerlan’s phone records led FBI agents to a man who admitted he had been at the scene with Tamerlan. But the interview became violent and the man was shot dead by police officers.

The defense wanted to introduce facts about the previous murders by having the FBI agent in the case read out from his statement of a search warrant. Defense attorney Habib told the appellate court that if the jury had heard evidence of the triple murder, it would have allowed the defense to contrast Tamerlan’s brutal story with his 19-year-old younger brother, a college student without a prior criminal record.

But prosecutor William Glasser replied that it would have been a distraction to dive into the triple murder.

“It is too great a leap to conclude that all this evidence of 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 his brother’s control.”

All of this will be argued Wednesday, just two days after the Boston Marathon was run, without incident, for the first time in more than two years since the pandemic began, and two days after the Red Sox struck the rays in yet another nail-biter and with yet another a walk-off race.

A decision from the Supreme Court is expected this summer.

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