BOSTON — Given the powerful grief and anger over the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston would seem to be a particularly hostile place for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to stand trial. But it might just be his best hope of escaping a death sentence.
Opposition to the death penalty runs deep in liberal Massachusetts. In a Boston Globe survey in September, 57 percent of Massachusetts residents polled favored life in prison for Tsarnaev, while 33 percent favored execution. As Tsarnaev’s lawyers weigh whether to attempt to move his trial out of town, away from those most deeply traumatized by the bombing, some legal experts say staying put might be a better strategy, even though emotions in the city are raw.
“I’d rather take my shot with the citizens of Massachusetts,” said Christopher Dearborn, a professor at Boston’s Suffolk Law School. “We’re at the highest irony here: We’re going to have a death penalty trial in a state where a majority of our citizens don’t support the death penalty.”
Federal prosecutors announced Thursday that they will seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev, 20, when he goes on trial in the bombing last April that killed three people and injured more than 260 at the crowded finish line of the race. No trial date has been set. Massachusetts abolished its death penalty in 1984, and repeated attempts to reinstate it have failed in the Legislature. But Tsarnaev is being prosecuted under federal law.
If he is convicted, the jury will take part in a second phase of the trial to decide whether he should get life or death. The jury must be unanimous for a death sentence to be imposed.
During jury selection, potential jurors will be asked about their views on capital punishment. To be selected, they must attest that they are willing to impose death if the evidence warrants it.
Federal prosecutors have asked a jury for the death penalty in Massachusetts in two other cases. A veterans hospital nurse who killed four patients was spared by a federal jury in 2001 in city of Springfield. But a jury in Boston in 2003 voted for the death penalty for a drifter convicted in the carjack killings of two men.
Attorney David Hoose, who represented the nurse, said Tsarnaev’s lawyers are likely to hire jury experts who conduct polls and do other research to determine if he can receive a fair trial in Boston federal court, which draws jurors from the metropolitan area and the rest of eastern Massachusetts.
“It is not always as obvious a decision as you might think, especially when you’re in a place like Boston, which by reputation has always been the center of (death penalty) abolitionist beliefs,” Hoose said. “You have to weigh that against the raw emotional impact that most people in the eastern section of Massachusetts are going to have.”
Victims and their families had mixed reactions to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to press for execution.
Even Tsarnaev’s friends are struggling with the question of whether he should be put to death if he is found guilty.
“I don’t know if I wish him the best or the worst,” said Rebecca Mazur, who went to high school with him. “He certainly screwed up, but he is still a human being.”
Marvin Salazar also went to high school with Tsarnaev but spent two years working with Krystle Campbell, one of those killed in the bombing.
“I’m in a tough position,” he said. “I don’t know what justice is.”