Tsarnaev death sentence vacated

Appeals court: Judge didn’t do enough to weed out biased jurors

A US APPEALS COURT on Friday vacated the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the latest chapter in a years-long legal saga resulting from a horrific crime that shook Boston to its core.

The ruling means the case will be sent back to district court for a new trial solely on what penalty Tsarnaev should get on the counts that are eligible for the death sentence.

Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, writing the 224-page decision for the three-judge panel of the First Circuit US Court of Appeals, stressed that Tsarnaev will remain in prison for the rest of his life. “Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution.”

Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan set off two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. They would later kill an MIT police officer. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a firefight with the police. After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted, he admitted in court that he committed the bombings.

Tsarnaev was sentenced to death, but also to multiple life sentences – so even if the death sentence is overturned, the life sentences will still stand.

Two central issues in the appeal had been whether Tsarnaev’s trial should have been moved out of Boston and whether the jurors were biased against him. Attorneys for Tsarnaev had argued that two jurors were in fact biased, based on their social media posts in the wake of the bombings.

Dzhokhar, left, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Under the law, a judge handling a case with significant pretrial publicity must ask about each potential juror’s exposure to the case, so the judge can decide whether the juror can ignore that publicity and try the case fairly. The appeals court decision held that the judge in Tsarnaev’s case, George A. O’Toole Jr., did not meet the standard for jury questioning laid out by law.

The Appeals Court declined to overturn the judge’s decision to keep the trial in Boston, although Justice Juan Torruella wrote in a concurring opinion that he believes the trial should have been moved. The appellate court’s opinion said that, given the decision to keep the case in Boston, the judge was obligated to oversee a thorough voir dire process capable of winnowing out prejudiced jurors.

The appellate justices held that the district court judge did not probe deeply enough into the nature of what the prospective jurors knew about the Boston Marathon bombings and what coverage they had seen.

The court also wrote that the judge’s decision to exclude evidence related to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s potential involvement in a triple murder in Waltham provides an additional basis for vacating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence. When arguing against the death penalty, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s attorneys had claimed that Dzhokhar, then 19, was influenced by his older brother in committing the bombings.

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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 appeals court also said the judge incorrectly decided a complex area of law related to whether Tsarnaev should have been convicted for using a firearm during a crime of violence, leading the court to vacate those charges.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev when he was convicted in 2015, said in a statement, “The Boston Marathon bombing was an act of terrorism that devastated families and residents across the Commonwealth and beyond. Victims and their families deserve justice and I hope this case is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

US Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat, said he hoped there would not be another penalty trial. “Let the defendant remain forever behind bars with no possibility of parole so that all those who suffered loss that day don’t have to once again hear his name, see his face in the news, or be forced to relive that terrible day,” Markey said in a statement.