WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a government appeal to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, granting review of a lower court’s ruling that errors during the trial had tainted the sentencing.
If the justices overturn the appeals court, Tsarnaev’s death sentence could be reinstated.
Tsarnaev, 27, was convicted of dozens of crimes in the 2013 terror attack that killed three people and received a death sentence in 2015. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit threw out the death sentence last year, finding that the judge in the trial failed to ensure a fair jury after wall-to-wall media coverage of the attack.
Then-Attorney General William Barr promised to appeal the decision and the Justice Department followed through in October. Government lawyers told the court that unless the justices took action in the case, prosecutors would have to retry the penalty phase of the trial, forcing victims of the attack to take the stand again.
As is its practice, the court took the case without comment.
A reversal could put President Joe Biden in a difficult position because during his campaign he promised to push for the approval of legislation to eliminate the death penalty.
Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, planted a pair of bombs near the finish line of the marathon and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer during a citywide manhunt. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a shootout.
Defense attorneys said Tsarnaev failed to receive a fair trial because the court did not allow them to probe potential jurors more aggressively about the influence media coverage of the bombing may have had on their impartiality. The court had declined their request to ask potential jurors content-specific questions, such as “What stands out in your mind” from the news they had consumed about the marathon bombing.
The appeals court also ruled the judge erred by excluding evidence authorities said implicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in other murders. Defense attorneys, who sought to move the trial out of Boston, said the evidence could have mitigated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s sentence by demonstrating his brother’s ability to convince others to join in violence.