Lawyers for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev say they cannot try the death penalty case until September 2015 at the earliest, citing the vast amount of evidence they still must review to plot their strategy in the greatly anticipated trial.
“The defense has not yet had an opportunity to review numerous additional items . . . including nearly 2,000 items that reportedly are still being analyzed by the FBI and items kept at additional locations,” said a joint filing defense lawyers and prosecutors submitted Monday in federal court.
Tsarnaev, 20, faces a slew of charges that could bring the death penalty for his alleged role in the April 15 bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 260.
A spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the government has previously suggested a fall 2014 start date. A pretrial conference is slated for Wednesday.
Legal specialists said the defense’s proposed timeline appears reasonable, in light of the complex issues at play.
“Anyone who’s been involved in such a case knows that it’s extremely labor intensive,” said Gerard T. Leone Jr., a former state and federal prosecutor who prosecuted Richard Reid, the would-be “shoe bomber” who pleaded guilty in 2002 to trying to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Leone said one issue for the defense is that Tsarnaev is being held under special administrative measures, which can limit access to his legal counsel.
“When we were prosecuting Richard Reid, for instance, he was under” [such measures], Leone said. “And the trade-off is providing one of the most secure ways of holding someone in custody against knowing that it will require more time and more steps in preparing the case, ultimately, for trial.”
Leone added that some evidence will probably be classified. Those items, he said, fall under a federal statute governing how they can be used in criminal proceedings, which can also lengthen the process.
Charlie Swift, a veteran defense lawyer based in Seattle who has handled several terrorism cases, said one reason for a perceived lag is that authorities have conducted much of their investigation after Tsarnaev’s arrest, which is unusual.
“In a case like this . . . they didn’t know this was coming,” he said. “They’ve been investigating, and as they finish their investigation, the defense gets” discovery evidence.
He said of the proposed defense timeline: “It has not gotten extraordinary yet. Now, there are things that could cause that to change, because they haven’t really started to fight yet. In a death penalty case, if you’re the defense attorney, you fight everything. . . . There are no points for being nice or trying to work out an accommodation.”
In Monday’s filing, prosecutors anticipate a roughly 12-week trial and, in the event of a conviction, a sentencing hearing lasting about six weeks. The US Department of Justice recently announced prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
Martin G. Weinberg, a Boston defense lawyer, cited that announcement as a factor in the defense’s requested timeline. “It seems perfectly reasonable, given the government’s election to seek capital punishment, which multiplies the magnitude of the discovery demands on both parties,” he said.