A panel of judges for the US First Circuit Court of Appeals Friday overturned the death sentence imposed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two men responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013.
The three-judge panel said that the trial court judge did not adequately screen jurors for preconceived biases against Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev’s lawyers had initially asked for a change of venue, arguing that their client could not receive a fair trial in Boston because of the horrific nature of the crime and how it impacted the community. Judge George O’Toole, however, declined to move the trial because he believed an impartial jury could be found in the city. The First Circuit, citing the extensive coverage of events which began the moment the bombs were detonated, said the judge’s refusal to move the trial was a possible error.
More importantly, the panel found that Judge O’Toole was not diligent enough in screening jurors and that this failure provides “sufficient ground to vacate [Tsarnaev’s] death sentences.” He had asked the jury pool only general questions about whether they could decide guilt or innocence based on the evidence, without asking content-specific questions that would have enabled him “to assess the publicity’s effect on the prospective jurors’ ability to reach a fair verdict.”
The panel ordered the case remanded to district court for a new penalty-phase trial on the death-eligible counts against Tsarnaev. They nonetheless affirmed Tsarnaev’s many convictions and life sentences on the remaining counts: “Dzhokhar will remain confined to prison for the rest of his life, with the only question remaining being whether the government will end his life by executing him.”
The US Attorney’s Office had no comment following the decision. They could still ask the full First Circuit to hear the case, appeal directly to the US Supreme Court, or not go forward with a new penalty trial and simply allow the life sentences to stand.