Tsarnaev trial must be scrupulous, even if that means moving it

A courtroom sketch of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev standing with his lawyer Miriam Conrad, left, before Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler.


A courtroom sketch of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev standing with his lawyer Miriam Conrad, left, before Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother targeted Massachusetts when they allegedly set off two deadly bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line last year, and bringing the accused terrorist to justice in a Boston courtroom clearly holds a strong emotional appeal. As a rule, criminal trials should happen close enough to the crime scene for victims and family members to attend. And in this case, there is a potentially therapeutic benefit to having the trial in the city that suffered the crime.

But a terrorism trial is also an occasion to showcase the fairness of the American system of law, with its admirably strong set of protections for the accused. Boston residents, the American public, and the global community all have an interest in seeing this trial reach a verdict that can neither be overturned on appeal nor questioned in the larger court of fairness. Tsarnaev’s request this month to move the trial out of Boston should be evaluated strictly on that basis. His lawyers have offered at least initially compelling evidence that many Bostonians have already decided that Tsarnaev is guilty, making it harder to assemble an impartial jury here.


Of course, it might be possible to find some Bostonians who haven’t already formed an opinion about Tsarnaev’s guilt. But the defense motion makes clear just how difficult that might be. According to a poll Tsarnaev’s legal team commissioned, nearly 60 percent of Bostonians already believe he is guilty. More than half of respondents either participated in the 2013 Marathon or knew someone who did.

For the court, there’s an inherent level of subjectivity in deciding whether to move the trial. How much negative media coverage is too much for Tsarnaev to get a fair trail? Still, while he probably could find a rationale to keep the trial here, US District Court Judge George O’Toole should not hesitate to move the proceedings if he thinks the defense’s claims are credible.

Nor should Bostonians view a change of venue as a bad outcome, should it happen. The community’s best interest will be served by a trial that provides as much closure as possible. Proceedings that are thoroughly fair and open — that leave no room for conspiracy theories, or accusations of tainted justice — make that outcome more likely. Especially with prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Tsarnaev, the court should be especially meticulous. The last thing that Bostonians should want is a guilty verdict that gets overturned on appeal. The trial court should do all it can to make certain that its verdict is thorough, fair — and unassailable.

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