WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to reinstate the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of helping carry out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Last year, a panel of three judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston upheld the convictions of Mr. Tsarnaev on 27 points. But the appeals court ruled that his death sentence had to be overturned because the trial judge had not questioned the jurors closely enough about their exposure to publicity prior to the trial and excluded evidence related to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his older brother and accomplice. .
The bombings, near the finish of the marathon, killed three people and injured 260, many of them seriously. Seventeen people lost limbs. A law enforcement officer was killed as the brothers fled a few days later. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a shootout with police.
After the appeals court ruling, federal government attorneys during the Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Biden administration has continued the case, United States v. Tsarnaev, No. 20-443, although President Biden has said he would work to abolish federal executions and the Justice Department has imposed a moratorium under his administration on it. carry out the federal death penalty.
The judges spent only a short time discussing whether the questioning of the potential jurors, which had lasted 21 days, had been adequate. But the more liberal judges expressed concern about the exclusion of evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been involved in an unsolved triple murder in 2011 in Waltham, Mass. younger brother.
“The whole point of the defendant’s criminal case was that he was dominated by, inappropriately influenced by, his older brother — and that would have gotten to that point,” Judge Elena Kagan said.
The argument failed to gain traction with the more conservative members of the court, who appeared to view the evidence as ambiguous and speculative. It came from a 2013 FBI interview with a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev named Ibragim Todashev.
Mr Todashev said he had taken part in the 2011 robbery of three drug dealers in Waltham, but he added that only Tamerlan Tsarnaev had cut the victims’ throats. When Mr. Todashev started writing down his confession, he suddenly attacked the officers, who shot and killed him.
Eric J. Feigin, a federal government attorney, said Mr Todashev’s statements were “unreliable hearsay allegations” of “a dead man with a powerful motive to lie.”
Even if the trial judge had erred in excluding the evidence, Mr Feigin said, the error was harmless given the overwhelming evidence that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “a motivated terrorist who voluntarily mutilated and killed innocents, including an eight-year-old boy.” , to promote jihad.”
Ginger D. Anders, a lawyer for Mr. Tsarnaev, disagreed. “The Waltham evidence would have changed the terms of the debate,” she said.
“The exclusion of evidence distorted the sentencing phase here by allowing the government to provide a deeply misleading account of key issues of influence and leadership,” she said.
Justice Kagan said the judge allowed the jury to hear other evidence about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
“This court has provided evidence that Tamerlan stabbed someone in the chest,” she said. “This court has provided evidence that Tamerlane was yelling at people. This court has provided evidence that Tamerlane assaulted a fellow student, all because it showed what kind of person Tamerlane was and what influence he could have had on his brother.”
“And yet,” Judge Kagan said, “has this court withheld evidence that Tamerlan led a crime that resulted in three murders?”
Judge Stephen G. Breyer seemed to agree that the evidence was important.
“This was their defense,” he said of Mr. Tsarnaev. “They had no other defense. They agreed he was guilty. Their only claim was, don’t give me the death penalty, because it’s my brother who was the driving force.”
But Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he doubted the evidence was of much value. “This evidence is many times inadmissible in a regular trial,” he said.
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Judge Amy Comey Barrett asked if the case was an empty exercise before the judges in light of Mr. Biden’s opposition to the death penalty and the moratorium on federal executions imposed by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in July.
“I wonder what the government’s endgame is here,” she told Mr. Feigin. “So the government has declared a moratorium on executions, but you’re here defending his death sentences. And if you win, it presumably means he’ll have to live under the threat of a death sentence that the government has no intention of carrying out. So I’m just struggling to follow the point.”
Mr Feigin replied that the moratorium was in place to give the government time to review its policies and procedures in capital cases and that the jury’s sentencing decision was worthy of respect.
Until July 2020, there had been no federal executions in 17 years. In the six months that followed, the Trump administration executed 13 inmates, more than three times as many as the federal government had executed in the previous six decades.
There was no dispute over Mr Tsarnaev’s guilt, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote before the appeals court panel last year. But, she added, “a core promise of our criminal justice system is that even the worst of us deserve to be tried fairly and be punished legally.
“To be clear,” Judge Thompson wrote, “Dzhokhar will remain in prison for the rest of his life, with the only question being whether the government will end his life by executing him.”