BOSTON — Federal authorities plan to recommend whether to seek the death penalty against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by the end of next month and expect U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to decide early next year whether to pursue it, prosecutors said Monday.
But Tsarnaev’s lawyers objected to the timetable and asked a judge for more time to make their case against the death penalty.
During a status conference in U.S. District Court, Tsarnaev’s lawyers said they have not received key evidence from prosecutors yet – including interviews or grand jury testimony of Tsarnaev’s family – and have not had enough time to submit a proposal arguing that Tsarnaev does not deserve the death penalty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb argued that the defense has had almost six months since the bombing. He said federal prosecutors plan to make a recommendation to Holder by Oct. 31. He will have the ultimate say on whether to seek the death penalty; his decision is expected by Jan. 31, Weinreb said.
Twin bombings at the April 15 marathon killed three people and injured more than 260. Tsarnaev, 20, and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, built two pressure cooker bombs and placed them near the finish line of the marathon, prosecutors allege. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died following a shootout with police days later.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged in a 30-count federal indictment, including 17 charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty. He has pleaded not guilty.
Weinreb said prosecutors originally asked Tsarnaev’s lawyers to submit their arguments by Aug. 23 but agreed to extend that deadline to October at their request. He said prosecutors are not required by law to wait for input from the defense before submitting their recommendation to Holder.
“We think that six months is a reasonable time,” he said.
But Judy Clarke, one of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, said “it’s a matter of fairness” and asked the judge to delay the date for their submission at least until they get the evidence they are seeking.
“It’s pretty stunning to say they can make a decision based on what they know without some defense input,” said Clarke, a San Diego lawyer who has won life sentences instead of the death penalty for high-profile clients, including the Unabomber and the gunman in the rampage that wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
Judge George O’Toole Jr. took no immediate action on the request but agreed to allow the defense to submit arguments on whether the court has the authority to reset any deadlines.
Prosecutors say Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen from Russia, wrote about his motivation for the bombing on the inside of the boat, scrawling that the U.S. government was “killing our innocent civilians.”
Massachusetts does not have a state death penalty.