Supreme Court Justices Differ on Boston Bomber’s Death Sentence

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Court hears arguments about whether procedural issues in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev justified the annulment of his death sentence by the appeals court

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Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan, Chechen immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, planted bombs in a 2013 terrorist attack that killed three people and injured hundreds of others near the finish line of the legendary race. They fled the scene, committing a spate of additional crimes, including the murder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer. Within days, officers identified the suspects, followed by a search operation in Boston and surrounding areas. Tamerlan was killed in a confrontation with the police, while Djokhar was captured the next day.

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In federal district court in Boston, Tsarnaev admitted his guilt; The only question was punishment. To ease his culpability, Tsarnaev argued that he had been radicalized and dominated by his older brother and had played a subordinate role in the terror plot.

Tsarnaev was sentenced to death, but in 2020 a federal appeals court in Boston overturned that sentence, concluding that the trial judge made multiple errors in the penalty trial. Despite Attorney General Merrick Garland’s stay on the federal execution, the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the sentence.

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That apparent contradiction puzzled Justice Amy Connie Barrett.

“I’m wondering what the end of the government is,” she said. “The government has announced a moratorium on executions, but you are here defending his death sentence, and if you win that means [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] He is charged with living under the threat of the death penalty which the government does not plan to fulfill. ”

“The administration believes the jury has delivered a good decision, and the Court of Appeals was wrong to uphold that decision,” said Justice Department attorney, Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin. That said, even if the government persists on the appeal, he said, years of additional proceedings before any potential execution date will run out, and things could change.

The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the trial judge, George O’Toole Jr., had not adequately examined potential jurors in relation to the pre-trial publicity that blanketed the Boston area. But in Wednesday’s arguments, the justices noted another element of the First Circuit’s opinion—that Judge O’Toole inappropriately excluded evidence about a previous murder in Waltham, Mass., that Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, His co-conspirators in the bomb plot, on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the al Qaeda suicide hijacking, strangled three victims to death.

Judge O’Toole concurred with the government, finding that admitting such evidence would be “confusing to the jury and a waste of time,” because the key players—Tamerlan and his alleged accomplices who framed him—were dead. and the facts could not be sufficiently established.

But Justice Elena Kagan said the Waltham evidence “essentially confirms, if it were true, the mitigating factor.” [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] was unduly influenced by his brother. At that point, it’s the jury’s job, isn’t it, to decide on the credibility of the evidence, deciding whether it’s strong evidence or weak evidence that Tamerlan actually played a leading role in those other gruesome murders? “

“I don’t think the evidence would have really added much to the mix of information we already have about who, for example, planned the Boston Marathon bombing,” replied Mr. Feigin.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed the point. “Assuming the constitutional right to present mitigating evidence,” she said, were the Waltham killings “not relevant to how this young brother would have reacted to the insistence of an older brother who had already committed jihad?”

Jess Bravin at [email protected]

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