Release Date: October 12, 2021
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral Argument in U.S. v. Tsarnaev on Wednesday, October 13

On Wednesday, the U. S. Supreme Court will review a 2020 First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the death sentence of one of the Boston Marathon bombers. United States v. Tsarnaev involves the conviction and death sentence of Muslim terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, along with his brother, set off two pressure-cooker bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and maiming hundreds of others.

At issue in the case is Tsarnaev’s claim that the judge at his trial failed to adequately question potential jurors to assure that they were not prejudiced by the publicity surrounding the bombing. The First Circuit accepted this claim and overturned Tsarnaev’s death sentence.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) has joined the case to encourage a decision overturning the First Circuit’s ruling.

The evidence of Tsarnaev’s guilt was overwhelming and included his confession. Tsarnaev can be seen on a security camera intentionally placing his bomb near a group of children watching the race. That bomb filleted open, to the bone, the leg of Boston University student Lingzi Lu, who bled to death within minutes. The bomb also shredded the body of 8-year-old Martin Richard, sending nails, glass, and BBs through his spinal cord, pancreas, liver, kidney, spleen, intestine, and abdominal aorta, and nearly severed his left arm. He bled to death on the sidewalk while his mother helplessly watched. The bomb placed by Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, nearly blew the legs off of 29-year-old Krysten Campbell, who bled to death on the sidewalk. The bombs caused hundreds of permanent injuries, including loss of limbs, blindness, and hearing loss.

While looking for a vehicle to steal for their escape, Tsarnaev sneaked up on the parked patrol car of a young MIT police officer and shot him to death. After the brothers carjacked an MIT graduate student and forced him to withdraw money from an ATM, the student managed to escape at a gas station in Watertown and reported the two terrorists and his stolen SUV to police. When officers spotted the car and began following, the terrorists stopped and began shooting and throwing bombs at them. After Tsarnaev’s brother was wounded in the shootout, Tsarnaev ran over him while trying to escape in the stolen SUV. He abandoned the vehicle a few blocks away and was found hiding in a boat in a resident’s backyard the next day. Tamerlan died, partly as a result of having been run over.

Prior to trial, Tsarnaev made four separate requests for a change of venue due to pretrial publicity he claimed would prejudice his case. The district court judge denied them, noting that while coverage of the bombing was extensive, it was not “blatantly prejudicial” toward him and that he would address possible juror bias during jury selection. The judge kept his word, summoning over 1,300 prospective jurors to fill out a 100-question questionnaire, inquiring into their background, social media habits, views on the death penalty, and knowledge of the case. Later, the court called back 256 of the prospective jurors for further questioning over 21 days, narrowing the pool down to 75 people, from which the parties selected the 12 jurors. During that process, Tsarnaev again petitioned the court of appeals asking for a change of venue. The court denied the request after reviewing the process the district court was undertaking and determining that it had taken ample time to weed out prospective jurors who might harbor bias against the defendant.

At trial, Tsarnaev never disputed his guilt, claiming instead that his older brother was the mastermind of the bombings and had influenced his participation. After a 17-day trial, the jury unanimously found Tsarnaev guilty on all counts. At the close of a 12-day penalty trial, the jury unanimously recommended the death sentence, which the judge imposed.

On appeal, Tsarnaev claimed that the trial judge’s questioning of potential jurors regarding pretrial publicity was inadequate, and that the judge’s decision to exclude evidence of his deceased brother’s involvement in an earlier, unrelated murder was improper. The court of appeals accepted both claims and overturned his sentence.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argues that the trial judge acted properly, following a 1991 Supreme Court decision specifying the requirements for questioning potential jurors. The brief further argues that the appeals court does not have the authority to add new requirements, and also that the trial judge did not err in excluding marginally relevant evidence of his brother’s involvement in an earlier, unrelated murder.

“The trial judge in this case did a thorough job in screening potential jurors and was well within his discretion to exclude the unrelated evidence under current federal law. The appeals court ruling overturning this horrible murderer’s sentence was improper and should be reversed,” said Scheidegger.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345