Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Convicted of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the Murder of a Police Officer

After approximately 11 hours of deliberations, a federal jury today convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of participating in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing that killed three people and injured approximately 260 others, and later murdering MIT Police Officer Sean Collier.

Tsarnaev was convicted of, among other crimes: conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death; conspiracy to bomb a public place resulting in death; using a weapon of mass destruction; carjacking; and numerous firearms offenses.  Nearly 100 witnesses testified over the course of 16 days.  The jury’s verdict brings to a close the first half of the trial.  Starting next week, the penalty phase of the trial will begin.  Jurors will begin considering evidence regarding whether Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty or, alternatively, spend the rest of his life in prison.

Much of the suspense was eliminated when, during her opening statement, Tsarnaev’s lawyer admitted his involvement in the crimes.  While the government proceeded to methodically present its case through the testimony of victims and law enforcement officers, the defense team often had little or no cross-examination.  The defense attorneys have already offered a preview of the primary argument they will make during the sentencing phase – that Tsarnaev was greatly influenced by his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who planned the attack.  Tamerlan was killed during a shootout with the police in Watertown a couple of days after the bombing.

Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but Tsarnaev is eligible for execution because he is being charged in federal court.  Although the federal government has capital punishment, it is rarely carried out.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are currently 61 inmates on federal death row, but only three federal inmates have been executed since 1963 (including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh).

Despite the horrific nature of the crimes for which Tsarnaev has now been convicted, it’s far from certain that he will receive the death penalty.  During the penalty phase, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there are “aggravating” factors.  These factors include, among other things, the particularly cruel and heinous character of the crime.  The defense attorneys will attempt to establish “mitigating” factors, such as Tsarnaev’s lack of a criminal record and the fact that his brother was the primary architect of the crime.  The 12 deliberating jurors must unanimously agree that Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death.  If even one juror does not vote to impose the death penalty, Tsarnaev will be sentenced to serve life in prison.

The punishment phase will be fascinating to watch.  All of the jurors told the judge during the jury selection process that they would be willing to consider imposing the death penalty in some cases.  A strong argument can be made that if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s the person who planted one of the bombs that caused unspeakable carnage.  On the other hand, as the Boston Globe pointed out in an editorial against the imposition of the death penalty, Tsarnaev was not as culpable as his brother, and at the time of the bombing he was only 19 years old.  If Tsarnaev is sentenced to death, there is one certainty – his execution will not happen until years’ worth of appeals are litigated (at the expense of the taxpayers).