Boston Bomb Suspect Gets Little Support on Trial Move AppealErik Larson and Janelle Lawrence
Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s prospects for getting his terrorism trial moved out of the city appeared to dim as two federal appeals court judges questioned his claim that biased jurors will doom his defense.
With weeks of jury selection almost complete and opening statements potentially just days away, one of three judges on the panel suggested disputes over alleged bias can be saved for a later appeal by Tsarnaev of a conviction or sentence.
“It’s a little difficult to see the irreparable injury,” U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch said at the hearing on Thursday in Boston. Defense lawyers can argue later “that the venue should have been changed,” she said.
Tsarnaev, 21, faces a possible death sentence if he’s convicted of the April 2013 attack, which killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded 260, many of whose limbs were blown off in the street near the finish line.
In seeking to have the case transfered, defense lawyers argue that most Bostonians have already made up their minds about the former college student as a result of the emotions surrounding the attack and subsequent manhunt that put much of the city in lockdown.
They say jury selection over the past month has only bolstered their long-standing claim that the pool of potential jurors is tainted. Answers in about 1,300 questionnaires and more than 200 in-person interviews under oath show widespread bias, they claim, including evidence that 68 percent already made up their mind about his guilt.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr., who is overseeing the trial, has denied three requests for a change. He said both sides with choose 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of 70 qualified jurors once that amount is reached.
One defense lawyer, Judith Mizner, told the appeals court that 61 jurors identified so far as being qualified may be biased without even realizing it, or may become biased once the evidence is presented at trial. The detailed questioning of prospective jurors, known as voir dire, can’t detect such bias if the jurors aren’t aware of it yet, she said.
Mizner cited one potential juror who said the government should skip the trial and go straight to sentencing. Another said the execution should be public, possibly at the finish line of the marathon, for all to see.
Prosecutors disagree, arguing voir dire is designed for just such situations, and that courts have repeatedly allowed those who live near the scene of high-profile crimes to serve as jurors.
“People with strong opinions in this case are unhesitatingly admitting them,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb told the panel. “The voir dire process is working.”
Jury selection continued Thursday in a separate courtroom with interviews of six people. One man, identified only as juror number 557, was immediately dismissed after he said he strongly believes Tsarnaev is guilty.
“It would be unbelievably unlikely I’d change that opinion based on what I’ve already heard,” he said.
Juror number 555, an older woman who works in food service for a hospital, said she hasn’t formed an opinion on whether Tsarnaev committed the bombings. Questioning abruptly ended, however, after she repeatedly said the death penalty would be the only appropriate sentence if Tsarnaev were found guilty, since life behind bars would be too harsh.
“I can’t even breathe thinking about staying in a cell for 40 to 50 years,” she said. “I can’t stand locking someone up for 40 to 50 years.”
Aside from entering a plea of not guilty, Tsarnaev hasn’t hinted at evidence that may exonerate him. His lawyers have signaled in court papers that they will try to save him from the death penalty by pinning most of the blame on his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police.
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev, 13-cr-10200, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston). The appeal is In Re: Tsarnaev, 15-1170, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (Boston).