Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombing, urged a federal judge Friday to grant them more time to prepare their opposition to the use of the death penalty in the case, saying federal prosecutors have been showing “an apparent rush to judgment that is contrary to . . . the interests of justice.”
Under federal guidelines, US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. must decide at the onset of the case whether to seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev, rather than life in prison, and he will base that decision in large part on input from US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz.
Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys can also have a say, by presenting opposition arguments to both Ortiz and Holder, but they argue that an Oct. 24 deadline that Ortiz set for them to respond will preclude Tsarnaev from making a “meaningful presentation.”
“Simply put, the government’s deadline . . . fails to provide the defense with a reasonable opportunity to make a presentation to the United States attorney,” the defense team said, arguing that prosecutors are rushing the schedule.
“The government cannot possibly make a well-informed decision without hearing from the defense.”
The April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are also accused of killing MIT police Officer Sean Collier, and they led authorities on a massive manhunt. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a gunfight with police in Watertown during which his brother allegedly ran over him with a car.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to multiple terrorism charges including using weapons of mass destruction resulting in death.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued that they only recently received preliminary evidence in the case and that they have requested more evidence from prosecutors so they can make a proper response. The team also said it is “still in the early stages of [its] independent investigation that literally spans the globe.” Tsarnaev’s family is originally from southern Russia, what the lawyers called one of the challenges in the investigation.
The defense team noted that one potential witness, Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tsarnaev’s brother, was killed by an FBI agent during an interview in Florida in May, and that several of Tsarnaev’s associates have been arrested and remain in federal custody. The team also argued that its direct communications with Tsarnaev have been hampered by his incarceration in Special Administrative Measures, which restrict their access to him. They plan to challenge some of the measures in further court proceedings.
In a court filing on Friday, the defense team argued to US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. that he has the authority to set a later deadline for them to file a response. It is not clear if or when O’Toole will decide on the schedule.
Federal prosecutors, saying Ortiz set the deadline on her recommendation to give Holder enough time to make a decision, have argued that a judge cannot influence the Department of Justice schedule. They also argued that the defense has had enough time to prepare a response, and that they have no obligation to turn over more evidence at this time.
Tsarnaev’s defense team countered in the court records Friday that, while it has been six months since Tsarnaev was charged, a United States attorney general on average takes 13 months to announce a decision on whether to seek the death penalty. Typically, the average span before a trial is held is 27 months.
A Boston Globe poll earlier this month found that 57 percent of respondents support a life sentence for Tsarnaev, compared with 33 percent who favor the death penalty. Capital punishment is barred in Massachusetts, but Tsarnaev has been indicted on several federal charges that allow for the death penalty.
Ortiz’s office has said that she will consult with senior staff in making her decision.