A federal judge ordered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, to stand trial in November, rejecting defense lawyers’ arguments that they need nearly a year longer than that to sift through thousands of pieces of evidence and interview witnesses around the globe as they prepare for the complex death penalty case.
US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. announced the Nov. 3 trial date during a hearing Wednesday in federal court, calling it realistic and fair. He also ordered defense lawyers to notify the court by June 18 whether they will ask to move the trial to another location.
The trial date — scheduled to begin less than 19 months after the April 15, 2013, bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260 — cannot come quickly enough for some victims.
“I think it should be sooner,” said Marc Fucarile, a bombing survivor from Stoneham who lost a leg and attended the hearing on crutches. “Everybody should be on the same page. It’s pretty cut and dry with the evidence. Don’t waste anybody’s time.”
Legal specialists said that it takes more time to prepare for death penalty cases and that there is intense pressure on defense lawyers because their client’s life is at stake. Some specialists said it is in the interest of the defense to seek delays because they postpone judgment day.
“The defense is motivated by two things, the desire to keep the defendant alive as long as possible and the desire to be prepared,” said Robert Sheketoff, a Boston criminal defense attorney who represented another death penalty defendant, Gary Lee Sampson. “In a case like this, where guilt or innocence is the least of your problems, what is your hurry to get to a conclusion?”
During Wednesday’s hearing, which the 20-year-old Tsarnaev did not attend, his lawyers complained that prosecutors have been slow to share evidence with the defense team, which is still waiting to review some 2,000 items, some of it ball bearings from the bombs, that remain at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.
“It’s a real problem,” Judy Clarke, one of Tsarnaev’s four court-appointed lawyers, told the judge. “We know enough about our case to know what we don’t know. We have a [Tsarnaev] family history investigation to do that is halfway around the world.”
Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty told the judge that the government has gone “above and beyond what we probably need to do” to share information with the defense and is trying to make arrangements for Tsarnaev’s lawyers to view the items in FBI custody.
O’Toole warned prosecutors that the trial could be delayed if disagreements between the two sides leave the defense unprepared by November.
Tsarnaev — who was born in Kyrgyzstan and came to the United States when he was 8, settling in Cambridge — faces a 30-count indictment alleging that he and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, detonated two bombs at the Marathon finish line. The brothers also allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge on April 18 while trying to flee the area. Hours later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a dramatic confrontation with police in Watertown.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat in Watertown and captured. Investigators said he confessed to the bombings, claimed to have been inspired by Al Qaeda publications, and scrawled on the boat that he was motivated by the US government’s killing of innocent civilians overseas.
Prosecutors estimate that Tsarnaev’s trial will last 12 weeks and that if he is convicted, it will take about six weeks to present evidence to jurors who must recommend life in prison or death.
Boston criminal defense attorney Juliane Balliro said the goal of the defense is to spare Tsarnaev’s life, while the government will focus on the bombing victims and the devastating impact of the attacks.
“The government is going to be very careful to make sure that every victim who wants to have their day in court has their day in court,” Balliro said. “That’s like almost 200 cases in a case.”
Several legal specialists also said radical extremists can be difficult clients. It is unclear how helpful Tsarnaev will be to his defense team and whether he will cooperate with their efforts to persuade a jury to spare his life.
Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, said jihadists want to die. “You die for the cause and that’s how you get to heaven,” he said.
While defense lawyers are arguing against the death penalty, Addicott said jihadist defendants view their trial as a platform to spread their views.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said there have been 70 people sentenced to die under the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988, and three have been executed. The cases vary greatly, in terms of how long they take to reach trial and how long the appeals process lasts.
It took about two years for prosecutors to bring Sampson and Kristen Gilbert, the only other two defendants to face the federal death penalty in Massachusetts, to trial. Sampson is now facing a retrial. The racketeering and murder case against James “Whitey” Bulger went to trial two years after his capture, although he did not face the death penalty.
But legal specialists said it is not unusual for cases to go to trial within a year of an indictment.
“I think everyone in Massachusetts and the federal government wants this case to be done right,” Dieter said of the Tsarnaev trial. “The world will be watching our justice system.”
Meanwhile, Congress continues to scrutinize the bombings.
The House Committee on Homeland Security is planning a rare field hearing in Boston this spring to let victims, local officials, and first responders testify on lessons learned following the Marathon attacks, said US Representative William R. Keating, who serves on the committee and urged the hearing.
The committee is planning to release one of several official reports on the attacks in coming weeks that will examine potential lapses in security and response.
Keating, a Bourne Democrat, has long pushed for a Boston-area hearing. He said that the committee’s chairman — US Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas — has yet to work out a date or exact location.
“Not everyone can travel to Washington for hearings, and we’ll learn more best practices,” Keating said.