Supreme Court reimposes Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence

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This file photo released April 19, 2013, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted and sentenced to death for carrying out the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombing attack that killed three people and injured more than 260. (FBI via AP, File)
This file photo released April 19, 2013, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted and sentenced to death for carrying out the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombing attack that killed three people and injured more than 260. (FBI via AP, File)

The Supreme Court has reinstated the death sentence for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The justices, by a 6-3 vote Friday, agreed with the Biden administration's arguments that a federal appeals court was wrong to throw out the sentence of death a jury imposed on Tsarnaev for his role in the bombing that killed three people near the finish line of the marathon in 2013.

“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes. The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, made up of the court’s six conservative justices.

The court reversed the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which ruled in 2020 that the trial judge improperly excluded evidence that could have shown Tsarnaev was deeply influenced by his older brother, Tamerlan, and was somehow less responsible for the carnage. The appeals court also faulted the judge for not sufficiently questioning jurors about their exposure to extensive news coverage of the bombing.

In dissent for the court's three liberal justices, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “In my view, the Court of Appeals acted lawfully in holding that the District Court should have allowed Dzhokhar to introduce this evidence.”

Breyer has called on the court to reconsider capital punishment. “I have written elsewhere about the problems inherent in a system that allows for the imposition of the death penalty ... This case provides just one more example of some of those problems,” he wrote in a section of his dissent his liberal colleagues, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, did not join.

The prospect that Tsarnaev, now 28, will be executed anytime soon is remote. The Justice Department halted federal executions last summer after the Trump administration carried out 13 executions in its final six months.

President Joe Biden has said he opposes the death penalty, but his administration was put in the position of defending Tsarnaev’s sentence at the Supreme Court.

Had Tsarnaev prevailed at the high court, the administration would have had to decide whether to pursue a new death sentence or allow Tsarnaev to serve out the rest of his life in prison.

Tsarnaev’s guilt in the deaths of Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China; Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Medford, Massachusetts; and 8-year-old Martin Richard, of Boston, was not at issue, only whether he should be put to death or imprisoned for life.

Tsarnaev was convicted of all 30 charges against him, including conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction and the killing of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Officer Sean Collier during the Tsarnaev brothers’ getaway attempt. The appeals court upheld all but a few of his convictions.

Two people who were seriously injured in the bombing and its aftermath praised Friday's outcome on Twitter.

“Congratulations to all who worked tirelessly for justice,” wrote Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer who lost a leg in the attacks.

Dic Donohue, a Massachusetts transit police officer who was critically wounded in a firefight with the two marathon bombers, tweeted: “Bottom line: He can’t kill anyone else.”

Others disagreed. Mélida Arredondo sustained hearing damage from the explosions on Boylston Street, and suffers from PTSD following the events of the attack. Her husband, Carlos Arredondo, helped save many victims.

She opposes the death penalty, due to her Cathoicism, but also because of what’s happening now — attention on Tsarnaev with every twist and turn in the legal case.

“It’s bothersome every time this comes back to light and he’s in the spotlight …. If he would just be life in prison he would not be able to make any appeals anymore. That stops it. And I think that’s preferable for many, not all, of the people who were involved that day.”

Rachael Rollins, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, said more legal battles lie ahead.

"Today’s opinion by the Supreme Court reverses the decision vacating the death sentence imposed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev following the jury’s verdict," she said. "There remain, however, other legal issues that must be addressed by various courts. Legal rulings don’t erase trauma and pain. Our focus today, and always, is on the hundreds of families that were deeply impacted and traumatized by this horrific act of domestic terrorism."

What happens next lies with Rollins and her boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to former federal judge Nancy Gertner. They could decide to reach a plea deal with Tsarnaev where they drop the death penalty and he spends the rest of his life in prison.

"Maybe now the US Attorney and the Attorney General should say life imprisonment and this case being over is sufficient,” Gertner said.

The main focus at high court arguments in October was on evidence that implicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a triple killing in the Boston suburb of Waltham on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The evidence bolstered the defense team theory that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was indoctrinated and radicalized by his older brother.

David Hoose, a defense attorney in Massachusetts who works death penalty cases, said the Supreme Court ruling was "discouraging and disappointing," especially when it came to the Waltham murder evidence.

"I think that a lot of us who do this kind of work felt like it was very clearly a mitigating factor that this kid was under the influence of a dominating older brother and indeed may have been in fear of him,” he said.

The trial judge had rejected that argument, ruling that the evidence linking Tamerlan to the Waltham killings was unreliable and irrelevant to Dzhokhar’s participation in the marathon attack. The judge also said the defense team's argument would only confuse jurors.

One problem with the evidence about the Waltham killings was that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev, who implicated him, were dead by the time of the trial.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, had been in a gunfight with police and was run over by his brother as he fled, hours before police captured a bloodied and wounded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston suburb of Watertown.

Todashev was interviewed by investigators after the marathon attack. He told authorities that Tamerlan recruited him to rob the three men, and they bound the men with duct tape before Tamerlan slashed their throats to avoid leaving any witnesses.

In a bizarre twist, while Todashev was being questioned in Florida, he was shot dead after authorities say he attacked the agents. The agent who killed Todashev was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

Given the circumstances, Thomas wrote, U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. can't be faulted for excluding Todashev's account because “no matter how Dzhokhar presented the evidence, its bare inclusion risked producing a confusing mini-trial where the only witnesses who knew the truth were dead.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh also voted to reimpose Tsarnaev's death sentence.

With reporting from WBUR's Matt Ledin. 

This article was originally published on March 04, 2022.

This segment aired on March 4, 2022.



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