Court Overturns Boston Marathon Bomber’s Death Sentence – The Wall Street Journal

Court Overturns Boston Marathon Bomber’s Death Sentence – The Wall Street Journal

A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the death sentence of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev while ordering a new penalty trial, finding that the trial judge hadn’t properly screened jurors for bias.

The 27-year-old will remain behind bars for life, the ruling from the First Circuit Court of Appeals said, but the government would need to pursue another trial to determine whether he would be executed for his crimes. His legal team didn’t argue against his guilt for the deadly bombings, but focused on trying to spare him from the death penalty while arguing he was led by his domineering older brother.

The defense also argued on appeal that the 2015 trial in Boston was tarnished by issues with jurors, including their use of social media. The federal district judge overseeing that case, George A. O’Toole Jr., didn’t meet the standard needed to determine whether a potential juror could ignore the publicity surrounding the case, Friday’s ruling said.

Protesters argued against the death penalty before the sentencing of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2015.


dominick reuter/Reuters

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, which prosecuted Tsarnaev, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Attorneys for Tsarnaev said they acknowledge the extraordinary harm done to the bombing victims but are grateful for the court’s conclusion that “if the government wishes to put someone to death, it must make its case to a fairly selected jury that is provided all relevant information.” It is now up to the government, they said, to bring a new trial “or to allow closure to this terrible tragedy by permitting a sentence of life without the possibility of release.”

The court found that jurors weren’t properly questioned about what they knew about the case, concluding “the judge qualified jurors who had already formed an opinion that Dzhokhar was guilty—and he did so in large part because they answered ‘yes’ to the question whether they could decide this high-profile case based on the evidence.”

Asking jurors to decide whether they could be impartial didn’t go far enough, the appellate court said. By not asking jurors “what it was they already thought they knew about the case, the judge made it too difficult for himself and the parties to determine both the nature of any taint…and the possible remedies for the taint,” according to the ruling from the three-judge panel, written by Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University and criminal-defense lawyer, said it is rare for a court to acknowledge a jury was potentially biased. “The great complaint among criminal-defense attorneys is that federal judges talk a good game about juror bias but rarely make the difficult choice to order new trials,” he said. “These concerns are particularly acute when dealing with a case involving capital punishment.”

Death sentences nationwide are commonly overturned on appeal, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan planted pressure-cooker bombs at the marathon finish line in April 2013, killing three people while causing 17 others to lose their legs. They also shot and killed a campus police officer in Cambridge while trying to flee the region days later.

Tamerlan, who was older, was killed shortly thereafter during a confrontation with police. Dzhokhar was captured, and two years later, a jury convicted and sentenced the surviving brother to death.

Friday’s ruling said: “But make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution.”

Tsarnaev is being held at a federal “supermax” prison in Colorado.

On July 14, the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution since 2003. There have been three executions this month, and a fourth is scheduled for Aug. 26. The Justice Department on Friday announced two more executions scheduled in September for what it described as “exceptionally heinous murders.”

The appeals court in Boston also sided with a key argument from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s legal team: that the jurors should have been allowed to hear evidence that Tamerlan had been implicated in a triple murder in Waltham, Mass., in 2011.

That information came from a man who allegedly confessed to being Tamerlan’s accomplice in that murder while he was being questioned by a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent in 2013. The agent fatally shot that man after saying he attacked the agent during questioning and was cleared of wrongdoing in 2014.

“The government called Dzhokhar’s mitigation theory (centered on Tamerlan’s influence over him) baseless because no evidence supported it,” Friday’s ruling said. “But the Waltham evidence could have been that evidence.”

The defense team had argued the proceedings should be moved outside of Boston for a fair trial. The judges said Friday they didn’t need to rule on this because the ruling’s other conclusions threw out his death sentence.

Rebekah Gregory, one of the bombing survivors who lost a leg in the attack, spoke out against the appeals-court ruling on Twitter. “All this does is give him the attention he wants, and prolongs the nightmare we have been living the last SEVEN years,” she said.

The court on Friday also reversed three convictions related to carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.

Write to Jon Kamp at and Sara Randazzo at

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