The US Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ruling that he had received a fair trial for his role in the 2013 terrorist attacks that killed three people and injured more than 260.
“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one.”
The high court held that an appeals court was wrong to overturn a jury’s decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death, amid questions over whether the jurors were properly screened for bias.
For some survivors of the terrorist attack, the reinstatement of the death penalty brought a sense of relief.
“I think they got it right,” said Marc Fucarile, 43, whose right leg was destroyed in the second blast on Boylston Street. His left leg was badly injured and requires a custom brace. “What he did calls for the death penalty. I think it sends a message that you can’t go planting bombs that mangle and mutilate people.”
Tsarnaev, now 28, has other options to appeal his sentence, mostly centering on the constitutionality of the death penalty. But the Supreme Court’s decision effectively settled the question of whether he received a fair trial and sentencing hearing for the bombings nine years ago. The federal appeals court decision in 2020 that cast aside the jury’s verdict enraged many victims and raised the specter of another drawn-out ordeal for survivors and relatives of the injured and the dead.
The Biden administration has imposed a moratorium on federal executions, but nonetheless supported and continued the government’s appeal of the 2020 lower court decision, which was filed during the Trump administration.
US Attorney Rachael S. Rollins offered a measured response to the court’s decision, praising the “resiliency” of those affected by the blasts.
“On April 15, 2013, Boston changed forever. Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Officer Sean Collier were murdered, while hundreds of other innocent victims were maimed and wounded,” Rollins said in a statement, naming the four who were killed by Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “Although the scar remains some nine years later, the resiliency of our city, the families of the victims, and the hundreds of brave survivors knows no bounds.”
Despite the high court’s ruling, Rollins continued, “there remain ... other legal issues that must be addressed by various courts. Legal rulings don’t erase trauma and pain. Our focus today, and always, is on the hundreds of families that were deeply impacted and traumatized by this horrific act of domestic terrorism.”
The 6-3 Supreme Court decision, with three liberal justices dissenting, rejected the decision of a three-member panel of a Boston appeals court. While that appeals panel had upheld Tsarnaev’s convictions, it vacated his death sentence, finding the trial judge failed to adequately screen prospective jurors for bias from media exposure.
The appeals court had also ruled that US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. improperly refused to allow the defense to present evidence that Tsarnaev’s older brother and co-assailant, Tamerlan, had allegedly committed a triple murder in Waltham in 2011.
“The District Court did not abuse its broad discretion by declining to ask about the content and extent of each juror’s media consumption regarding the bombings,” Thomas wrote, adding that O’Toole correctly found the defense’s proposed question about media consumption too broad.
Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for placing a bomb in front of the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, that killed 8-year-old Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China.
His older brother, Tamerlan, placed a bomb that killed Krystle Campbell, 29, of Arlington. The brothers also shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier while they were on the run after the bombings. Tamerlan was killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown hours after the shooting of Collier.
One month after the bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was implicated in the Waltham slayings by a friend, Ibragim Todashev. He told the FBI the pair had planned to rob the men, who sold marijuana, but then Tsarnaev killed them because he didn’t want any witnesses, according to court filings. Shortly after making the statements, Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent he allegedly attacked during an interview, according to officials.
In his opinion, Thomas wrote that the trial judge’s decision to exclude the Waltham evidence, which the defense wanted to use to show that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was under the sway of his domineering, violent older brother, was reasonable.
“Dzhokhar sought to divert the sentencing jury’s attention to a triple homicide that Tamerlan allegedly committed years prior, though there was no allegation that Dzhokhar had any role in that crime,” Thomas wrote. “Nor was there any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involved were dead.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the appeals court that tossed the death sentence “acted lawfully in holding that the District Court should have allowed Dzhokhar to introduce this evidence” of the Waltham killings.
“The Waltham evidence tended to show that Tamerlan was involved in a brutal triple murder ... a year and a half before the bombings,” Breyer wrote. “The evidence tended to show that Tamerlan committed these murders for ideological reasons.”
Breyer said the evidence of Tamerlan’s involvement in the triple slaying “supports the claim” he was “the violent, radicalizing force behind the ideologically motivated bombings a year and a half later.”
Thomas was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, while Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Breyer’s dissent.
Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that he hoped the high court’s ruling grants some measure of relief to victims and their relatives.
“While nothing can ever bring back those we lost on that terrible day, I hope today’s decision will bring some sense of justice for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their families,” Baker said in a statement.
A lawyer for Tsarnaev did not return a request for comment Friday. Tsarnaev is in a federal prison in Colorado.
The family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, which had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev, declined to comment on the court’s decision.
But some, including US Representative Ayanna Pressley, criticized the ruling.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today to reinstate the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case is deeply disappointing, but unsurprising for this far-right majority Court that has shown time and again its contempt for the people,” Pressley said in a statement.
Pressley urged Congress to pass a bill she has co-sponsored that would prohibit federal executions, and said President Biden has promised her the federal government wouldn’t execute anyone under his watch.
Fucarile, who survived the bombings with extensive injuries and still has shrapnel embedded throughout his body, said he is no fan of the death penalty and isn’t comfortable “playing God.”
But for his family, especially his 14-year-old son, Tsarnaev’s death would bring a sense of closure and safety, he said.
“He was 5 years old when it happened,” Fucarile recalled. “He would break down just crying on a car ride in the back seat. And I would ask why he was crying, and he would say he was afraid the guy would get out and come back and hurt us again.”
Tsarnaev’s death would mean fewer reminders of that terrible day on Boylston Street, he said.
“Unfortunately, as long as he’s breathing, he can keep appealing,” he said. “We’re going to hear about him as long as he’s alive and in jail.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @jeremycfox.