Supreme Court reinstates death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev 

In 6-3 decision, court overturns Appeals Court ruling

THE SUPREME COURT reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in a split 6-3 decision. 

The decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The three liberal justices on the court – Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor – dissented. 

In 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated homemade pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding hundreds. They went on to murder an MIT police officer and lead the police on a chase in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed. A US District Court jury in Boston convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of the bombing and sentenced him to death.  

Tsarnaev’s attorneys appealed the death sentence, and US Appeals Court overturned it. The Appeals Court found that the judge during jury selection did not adequately ask about the type of media exposure each juror had to the case, and the court should not have excluded evidence about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possible involvement in an earlier unsolved triple homicide in Waltham. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s attorneys wanted to use information about the murder to argue that Tamerlan was the ringleader who influenced his younger brother. 

The Supreme Court, however, concluded that the District Court judge was within his rights not to ask a particular question about the content and extent of jurors’ media exposure, on the grounds that the question focused on what jurors knew before coming to court rather than the jurors’ bias. The high court ruled that the 100-page juror questionnaire, combined with three weeks of jury selection, sufficiently probed for juror bias. 

The Supreme Court also said the District Court was right in excluding evidence related to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possible ties to the Waltham murders, because with limited available evidence, jurors would not be able to adequately assess his role in those murders. “The bare inclusion of the Waltham-murders evidence risked producing a confusing mini-trial where the only witnesses who knew the truth were dead,” Thomas wrote. 

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Shira Schoenberg

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Breyer, in a dissenting opinion, argued that the District Court should have allowed a jury to hear evidence about the Waltham murders. A major part of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense in the sentencing phase of his trial was that he had been influenced by his more radical and domineering older brother. “Evidence that Tamerlan participated in (and potentially orchestrated) one set of ideologically motivated murders in 2011 supports the claim that Tamerlan was the violent, radicalizing force behind the ideologically motivated bombings a year and a half later,” Breyer wrote. 

Although President Biden has said he supports abolishing the death penalty, his Justice Department had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death sentence in Tsarnaev’s case.