Justice Department seeks reinstatement of Tsarnaev death penalty 

Move follows Appeals Court ruling overturning sentence for Boston Marathon bomber 

THE US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE will seek to have the death penalty reinstated for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who had his death sentence overturned by a US Appeals Court. 

US Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement that after “extensive deliberations,” including consideration of the views of many of the case’s victims, the Justice Department decided to ask the US Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court’s decision. “Our hope is that this will result in reinstatement of the original sentence and avoid a retrial of the death penalty phase,” Lelling said. 

Lelling said federal prosecutors “respectfully disagree” with the Appeals Court decision. 

Additionally, Lelling said, “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an ideologically driven mass killer who, with his brother, detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon two home-made bombs specifically designed to rip people apart, killing three – a young boy and two women – maiming seventeen, and injuring hundreds; shot a police officer three times in the head so they could steal his sidearm; and exchanged thousands of rounds with police officers in Watertown.”  

“I have heard, and respect, the voices calling for the Department to drop its pursuit of the death penalty in this case,” Lelling said. “But the severity of Tsarnaev’s crimes place him in that narrow category of criminals for whom death is a proportional punishment.” 

Lelling acknowledged the argument that executing Tsarnaev will not deter him from similar crimes, since Tsarnaev will otherwise spend the rest of his life in prison. But, Lelling said, “Ultimately, this decision is not about deterrence.  It is about justice.” 

Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a firefight with the police, set off two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell and injuring hundreds. Tsarnaev was convicted on multiple charges and sentenced to death in 2015. 

Tsarnaev’s attorneys argued on appeal that the trial should not have been held in federal court in Boston, where jurors were likely to be prejudiced against Tsarnaev. They also argued that two of the jurors who served were, in fact, biased. 

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit US Court of Appeals on July 31 overturned Tsarnaev’s death sentence. The court found that the trial court judge did not meet the standard laid out by law for questioning jurors on the content of what they knew about the case in order to weed out potential bias.   

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

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.

The Boston Globe reported that many victims had mixed opinions on whether they wanted prosecutors to seek to reinstate the death penalty. Some wanted Tsarnaev to remain in jail for life, others wanted him put to death, and some said they were torn, or did not want to see Tsarnaev back in the news for the duration of another penalty phase trial. 

If the US Supreme Court declines to reinstate the death penalty, it will be up to prosecutors whether to hold another penalty phase trial, in which jurors would hear evidence of both aggravating and mitigating factors to decide whether to put Tsarnaev to death.