Judge Juan Torruella, who served nearly four decades on the Boston-based federal appeals court and took part in such high-profile rulings as the tossing of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence, died Monday at the age of 87, the court said.
Susan Goldberg, circuit executive for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, confirmed Torruella's death. She said she could not provide the cause of death.
“It is a great loss to the Court of Appeals and the First Circuit. Our hearts go out to his wife and family,” Goldberg said in an email.
Torruella, who was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, was appointed to the 1st Circuit in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, becoming the first Puerto Rican to serve on a U.S. federal appeals court. A decade later, he replaced Judge Stephen Breyer as chief judge of the 1st Circuit when Breyer was elevated to the Supreme Court. Torruella served as chief until 2001.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called Torruella “a strong advocate for the rights of Puerto Ricans” who “spent his career advocating for their equal rights as U.S. citizens.”
“His insight and passion for the law will be missed,” Lelling said in an emailed statement.
Torruella was part of a three-judge panel that in July unanimously overturned Tsarnaev's death sentence and ordered a new trial to decide whether he should be put to death for the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. The court said the judge who oversaw Tsarnaev's trial did not adequately screen jurors for potential biases.
Federal prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
In 2015, Torruella dissented as part of a different three-judge panel that ruled that Tsarnaev's case could stay in Massachusetts.
In a concurring opinion with the decision vacating Tsarnaev's death sentence, Torruella again argued that Tsarnaev's trial should never have been held in Boston, saying if his case didn't merit a change of venue, none would.
"The physical and emotional wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the events of the following week, flooded the residents of the Eastern Division with sorrow, fear, and anger," he wrote. “Few crimes have been as offensive and devastating to an entire community than those committed by the Tsarnaev brothers. But for even the most heinous of offenses, our system of justice demands vigorous protection — both in appearance and fact — of a defendant’s right to a fair trial and sentencing.”
Torruella was also on a three-judge panel that last month heard arguments in a case brought by a group that accuses Harvard University of intentional discrimination against Asian American students who apply to the Ivy League school. Students for Fair Admissions is asking the appeals court to overturn a trial-level judge’s 2019 decision finding that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans.