Opening statements in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should begin next Wednesday, nearly two years after the bombs went off, as the federal judge overseeing the case wound down the difficult two-month process of picking a jury.
After weeks of interviewing potential jurors, US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. has found more than 64 suitable people to serve on what is known as a death-qualified jury, meaning those selected must be willing to hand out the death penalty.
During jury selection Wednesday, O’Toole told one potential juror that the trial “may well” last into June. Hundreds of people have been identified as potential witnesses.
On Monday morning, a hearing will be held to resolve last-minute legal matters.
The jury selection process, which began on Jan. 5, is now scheduled to be completed on Tuesday with peremptory challenges — when prosecutors and defense attorneys will be allowed to dismiss some of those from the jury pool for strategic reasons, until a final jury of 12 and six alternates remains. That hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday.
By Wednesday, the judge will swear in the jury before opening statements.
“The presentation of evidence will begin immediately thereafter,” the court said in a statement.
The court’s announcement of the schedule late Wednesday evening, after the judge hosted weeks of closed-door arguments over potential jurors’ suitability, marked a significant milestone in the challenging process of picking a fair jury in the case.
A federal appeals court has been considering a request to intervene and force O’Toole to move the trial, but the judge has moved forward with the case.
Tsarnaev, 21, a naturalized US citizen from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, who was living in Cambridge and attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, faces multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty. He is accused of planting the bombs at the Marathon finish line the afternoon of April 15, 2013, that killed Martin Richard, Krystle Marie Campbell, and Lingzi Lu, and injured hundreds more.
Tsarnaev was arrested days later after a manhunt, found hiding in a dry-docked boat in Watertown.
His older brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in the confrontation with police, during which the brothers allegedly threw pipe bombs at law enforcement officers. The brothers also allegedly shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier before attempting to flee the area.
Prosecutors allege that the brothers were inspired by Al Qaeda and that they carried out the attacks as retribution for US military involvement in the Middle East.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers, according to court records, plan to argue that he was coerced by his dominating older brother, who influenced him with his extremist views.
Before jury selection began, legal analysts argued that it would be impossible to pick a fair jury in the same city where the bombs went off. Tsarnaev’s lawyers filed three requests with O’Toole to relocate the trial to a district outside of Boston, arguing that answers to a questionnaire completed by 1,373 potential jurors from Eastern Massachusetts showed that 85 percent of them already believed Tsarnaev is guilty or have some connection to the Marathon.
The defense team twice asked the federal appeals court in Boston to intervene. A three-judge panel initially denied that request in January, but is now considering a second request. A hearing was held last week, but two of the three judges have already signaled their refusal to get involved, questioning whether the court has the authority to intervene in O’Toole’s management of the trial.
O’Toole had maintained that he could pick a fair jury, saying that the questionnaire and interviewing the jurors in person in a process known as voir dire could help filter out anyone with potential bias. By Wednesday, O’Toole had interviewed 256 potential jurors over 21 days. Voir dire, which began Jan. 15, was hampered by two holidays and six days of snow cancellations.
The prospective jurors interviewed Wednesday included a young landscaper, who said he could not serve because it would be a financial hardship. A woman who works as a special ed teacher for her local school district said she has already determined Tsarnaev is guilty, based on media reports, and that nothing could change her mind.
But another man, a history teacher who studied political science, said he could remain impartial, and open to handing out a death sentence.
But, he added, “I think the state has to prove a compelling [case] to make me want to put someone to death. I don’t take it lightly.”