Boston Marathon bomb suspect had death penalty deal rejected

Lawyers start picking jury in trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (21) from pool of 1,200 people

The trial of a man suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013 has begun with jury selection as it emerged that prosecutors rejected a deal that would have spared him from the death penalty.

Chechen-American Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (21) is accused of killing three people and injuring 264 others, including at least 17 who lost limbs, by detonating home-made bombs near the finish line of the marathon on April 15th, 2013.

He has also been charged with killing a Massachusetts police officer. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, including 17 that could carry the death penalty.

Mr Tsarnaev’s older brother Tamerlan was killed in a confrontation with police hours after the shooting dead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer following the bombings during a manhunt that shut down the Boston area.


Lawyers for the surviving Tsarnaev brother tried to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors that would have involved the student pleading guilty and receiving a life sentence without parole, but the US Department of Justice has insisted on the death penalty as a possibility.

Mr Tsarnaev's attorney Judy Clarke has previously negotiated deals that protected people from the death penalty, including Zacarias Moussaoui, a plotter in the September 2001 terror attacks on the US, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski who killed three people, and gunman Jared Loughner who killed six and gravely injured then congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at an Arizona shopping centre in 2011.

Lawyers in the Boston case will start their opening statements on January 26th in a trial expected to last three to four months, according to a timeline provided by District Court judge George O’Toole.

Appearing in a jury assembly room, Mr Tsarnaev, wearing a dark top and khaki trousers, picked at his beard and stared at potential jurors as the process to select a jury from a pool of 1,200 people began.

He faces 30 charges, including the possession and use of a weapon of mass destruction. Massachusetts banned the death penalty in 1984 but Mr Tsarnaev is being tried in a federal rather than state court.

The trial is expected to be divided into two phases: deciding Mr Tsarnaev’s innnocence or guilt and then his sentencing if found guilty.

Judge O’Toole has denied requests from the accused seeking to move the trial out of Massachusetts, claiming that he cannot receive a fair trial in a court just a few miles from where the bombing occurred.

Finding a jury is expected to be a lengthy process given the number of people disrupted by the “shelter-in-place” police order during the manhunt in the days after the bombings and the level of opposition to the death penalty in Massachusetts, a traditionally liberal state.

“It is going to be difficult to find an impartial and fair jury but not impossible,” said Daniel Medwed, professor of law at Northeastern University in Boston. “I just think it’s going to take a long time to find 12 jurors and six alternatives. There is a strong sentiment here that the trial should be held in the community where the crime took place.”

Mr Tsarnaev moved from Kyrgyzstan when he was eight and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a popular student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth at the time of the bombings.

Prosecutors are set to present strong evidence showing Mr Tsarnaev's involvement and his anger at the killing of innocent Muslims in the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as motives for the bombings.

Defence lawyers are expected to portray Mr Tsarnaev as a young man influenced by his radicalised older brother, suggesting that the most intense legal arguments will take place in the sentencing phase.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent