Published: 2021-10-13 15:36
Last Updated: 2022-09-30 21:57
The United States Supreme Court is considering the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the perpetrator of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack, and will decide whether he should spend the rest of his life in prison or be executed.
The case, which raises fundamental questions about jury selection in high-profile crimes, also exposes the contradictions of US President Joe Biden's position on the death penalty.
The Democrat promised during his campaign to work for the abolition of this punishment at the federal level. But his government will call on Wednesday before the nine judges of the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty handed down to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the First Instance Court.
In 2013, the Chechen student and his older brother Tamerlan planted two homemade bombs near the arrival line at the Boston Marathon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring 264.
They were identified thanks to surveillance cameras, and the two brothers escaped and killed a policeman while fleeing. Three days after the attack, the older brother was killed during a confrontation with the security forces.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found wounded while hiding in a boat. He wrote on one of the walls that he wanted to avenge the Muslims who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During his 2015 trial in federal court in Boston, his attorneys asserted that the then 19-year-old (28 years old today) was under the influence of his older brother, who was a radical. Without denying the gravity of the facts, they demanded a life sentence.
The jury was not satisfied and decided the death penalty.
In 2020, a federal court overturned the ruling, citing two irregularities.
It held that in such a well-publicized dossier, potential jurors should have been questioned about what they had read or seen at the time of the assault in order to exclude those who had formed an opinion.
It also considered that the court erred in rejecting the defense's request, which wanted to address a triple murder dating back to 2011, most likely committed by the older brother as proof of his personality as a radical.
While president, Donald Trump strongly criticized the Court of Appeals, saying that "the death penalty has seldom been due as in the case" of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His government has submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn its decision.
When Biden arrived at the White House, his government could have withdrawn this request, especially since the Court of Appeals made it clear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves to remain in prison for life. But his administration let it take its course and a representative of the Department of Justice will defend the request Wednesday in the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States.
- "unacceptable" -
In an argument brought before the court, the state asserted that the young man “was determined to commit these crimes, and remained proud of his deeds.”
It added that "the jury that saw a videotape showing him planting a homemade bomb behind a group of children would not have changed its mind" had it known "the alleged involvement of Tamerlan in unrelated crimes committed two years ago."
As for media coverage, "this does not mean that a person cannot be impartially tried."
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers responded by saying, "If there is any file in which a question should be addressed to the members of the jury" about what they heard before the trial, it is "this file."
They added that "unacceptable comments were made on traditional and social media, calls were made for his execution (...) along with inflammatory statements about his religion and his immigrant status."
They have received support from prejudice psychologists, former judges and federal prosecutors who consider that "individually asking potential jurors for the content of what they know is a useful, not controversial, mechanism for creating an unbiased jury."
The Supreme Court is supposed to issue its decision before the end of June 2022.