Release Date: March 4, 2022
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Decision in U.S. v. Tsarnaev released today

In a 6-3 decision released this morning, the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The high court overturned a 2020 First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which had voided the sentence. The case of United States v. Tsarnaev involved Tsarnaev’s conviction and death sentence for his role in setting off two pressure-cooker bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and maiming hundreds of others. Tsarnaev committed this crime along with his older brother, who was killed during their escape.

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. In addition, the First Circuit held that the trial judge had erred in excluding marginally relevant hearsay evidence concerning a murder years earlier that Tsarnaev’s brother may have been involved in.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) joined the case to encourage a decision overturning the First Circuit’s ruling. CJLF’s brief argued that in order to reach its decision, the First Circuit added new requirements governing jury selection and the introduction of evidence beyond those required by Supreme Court precedent.

In the Court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas writes, “lower courts cannot create prophylactic supervisory rules that circumvent or supplement legal standards set out in decisions of this Court.” Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Gorsuch, added a concurring opinion noting her “skepticism that the courts of appeals possess such supervisory power in the first place.”

On the issue of the evidence of the prior murder, the Court held the trial judge had reasonably exercised his discretion to exclude evidence with minimal probative value. That authority is expressly conferred by the Federal Death Penalty Act in language very similar to evidence rules that have long applied in both state and federal courts. The Court rejected the claim that the Eighth Amendment requires a different rule for the penalty phase of capital cases.

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 where he reported the two terrorists and his stolen SUV to police. When officers spotted the SUV 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, 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 argued that the trial judge acted properly, following a 1991 Supreme Court decision specifying the requirements for questioning potential jurors. The brief further argued 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 federal law. The Supreme Court recognized that the lower court ruling improperly limited the judge’s discretion in matters entrusted to him by Supreme Court precedent and the governing statute,” said Scheidegger.

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