The long-awaited trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev begin this morning in Boston federal court and his attorney wasted little time in admitting that he was involved in the bombings. According to the Boston Globe, in her opening statement the defendant’s attorney called the bombings “misguided acts” and conceded that “it was [the defendant]” who participated in the crime. He has been charged with 30 federal crimes, 17 of which qualify for the death penalty.
The defendant and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are accused of planting two bombs on Boylston Street near the Boston Marathon finish line on Patriots Day in 2013. The prosecution team contends that the brothers were radical Islamic terrorists who believed the United States government hated the Muslin people. Immediately after the bombs exploded 12 seconds apart, Boylston Street looked like a war zone with smoke filling the air and mangled bodies strewn over the sidewalks and street. Three people were killed in the blasts and more than 260 were injured. Many of the survivors had limbs amputated and are continuing to struggle with their recoveries.
The defendant and his brother were identified three days after the bombing by surveillance videos that were taken around Boylston Street. In an effort to escape the area, the brothers are accused of shooting to death an MIT police officer in order to steal his gun. They allegedly carjacked an SUV and fled through Watertown, where they encountered and exchanged gunfire with a team of police officers. During the shootout, Dzhokhar accidentally ran over and killed Tamerlan with the SUV. Dzhokhar escaped but was arrested the following day after being discovered hiding in an empty boat that was in the backyard of a Watertown home. His arrest came at the end of a day that no Massachusetts resident will ever forget, as people in Boston and the neighboring communities were ordered to shelter in place and the city had the appearance and feel of a ghost town.
For the past two months, the attorneys and the presiding judge have been attempting to select a fair and impartial jury to hear the case. The defendant’s attorneys have repeatedly filed motions to transfer the case out of Massachusetts, arguing that it will be impossible to find fair and impartial Massachusetts citizens to sit as jurors. The judge has denied each motion to change venue and this morning 18 jurors began what will be the long process of considering the evidence related to that horrific day.
Massachusetts abolished the death penalty many years ago, but Tsarnaev is subject to capital punishment because he is being charged with federal crimes in a federal courtroom (the federal government continues to impose the death penalty for certain crimes). One of the hurdles in selecting a jury was finding potential jurors who would be willing to vote to sentence the defendant to death if he is convicted of the crimes. Many of the potential jurors told the judge they would not impose the death penalty under any circumstances, and they were removed from consideration.
If we are going to have the death penalty in this country, there is no question that this is the type of vile, evil criminal act that should qualify. It’s worth noting, however, that if the government was not seeking the death penalty, the defendant might have pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence which would spare the victims the trauma of a trial, remove the defendant from society for the rest of his life, and ultimately be less expensive (as studies have repeatedly shown that it is more expensive to litigate a death penalty case and impose capital punishment than it is to incarcerate someone for the rest of his life).