Supreme Court likely to reinstate death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber

Sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether or not the death penalty should be reinstated for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. Though the Court is currently divided on the issue, it appears as though they will ultimately decide to reinstate the death penalty for Tsarnaev. 

Tsarnaev, along with his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 260. One of the victims who died in the explosion was UMass Boston alumna Krystle Campbell. 

Tsarnaev’s original trial began in March of 2015, and by April 8, 2015, Tsarnaev was found guilty of all 30 federal counts he was charged with. 17 of these counts held the death penalty as a possible sentence, and the jury found that six of the 17 counts warranted a death sentence. In May of 2015, Tsarnaev was sentenced to death. 

In July of 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned Tsarnaev’s death sentence. According to the Court, the judge in the 2015 trial did not question the potential jurors thoroughly enough to avoid possible bias regarding the highly publicized case. 

Additionally, the Court found that Tamerlan—who was killed in a shoot-out with the police after the brothers hid out for days after the bombings—was more at fault than Dzhokhar for the bombings. At the time of the bombings, Dzhokhar was 19, and Tamerlan was 26.

The Supreme Court hearing lasted 90 minutes and focused mainly on the issue of Tamerlan’s influence on Dzhokhar.

Tamerlan was the prime suspect in a triple-homicide case in Waltham that occurred on Sept. 11, 2011. Tsarnaev’s lawyers were not allowed to bring up Tamerlan’s status as the alleged perpetrator of the Waltham murders in Dzhokhar’s 2015 case.

Conservative justices questioned the relevance of this information in deciding Tsarnaev’s fate, while liberal justices claimed that this point was necessary in deciding the influence Tsarnaev’s older brother had on him. 

"The court let in evidence about Tamerlan assaulting people because it showed the kind of person he was, and yet it kept out evidence that he led a crime that resulted in three murders?" asked liberal Justice Elena Kagan. "The court refused to allow evidence of a gruesome crime."

"The theory that Tamerlan was the lead player is entirely unreliable," said conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

“It doesn’t really matter who took the lead in the [Waltham] killing or even if the brother participated,” said liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The only issue would have been, what did [the] defendant think? And so I’m not sure whether the relevancy issue the district court ruled on made any sense to me.” 

The Biden administration has halted all federal executions by issuing a temporary moratorium. However, they continue to defend the decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death. 

Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted this inconsistency:

“I’m wondering what the government’s end game is here. So the government has declared a moratorium on executions, but you’re here defending his death sentences. And if you win, presumably, that means that he is relegated to living under the threat of a death sentence that the government doesn’t plan to carry out. So I’m just having trouble following the point.” 

It is not known exactly when the Court will make its final decision regarding this case, though it is suspected that the decision will be made by the summer of 2022. No matter the decision made by the Court, Tsarnaev will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

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