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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seeks delay in filing change of venue request

Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber, asked a federal judge Monday for more time to decide whether to seek a change of venue for his high-profile case.

The lawyers asked US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. to vacate a Feb. 28 deadline he had set for them to file a change of venue request, and to defer setting a new deadline until they can complete all pretrial litigation.

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Saying they have not yet decided whether to seek a change of venue, the lawyers argued that unresolved legal questions – such as whether prosecutors plan to seek a death penalty in the case – would make a decision now “improvident because those events and the passage of time are likely to have substantial effects on the very public attitudes that underlie the venue decision.”

Tsarnaev, 20, faces multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty for planting the bombs on April 15 at the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260. He is also accused of shooting MIT Police Officer Sean Collier before leading police into a firefight in Watertown. His older brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a confrontation with police several days after the bombing.

At a Nov. 12 hearing, O’Toole ordered US Attorney General Eric Holder to decide by Jan. 31 whether he will seek the death penalty in the case, which would influence the course of pretrial litigation. The judge also ordered the defense team to file any significant motions, such as a motion to dismiss the case, and a motion for a change of venue.

A Boston Globe poll in September showed that 57 percent of Massachusetts respondents supported a life sentence for Tsarnaev, compared with 33 percent who favored the death penalty.

The defense lawyers argued in their filing Monday that they have not been able to factually investigate whether a change of venue request would be warranted, let alone prepare a request, pending the outstanding legal issues.

“The factual research required to support a motion to change venue is substantial,” the defense lawyers argued, saying it would include a review of pretrial publicity. “Given the saturation coverage that has attended this case, this task is formidable. Moreover, counsel must then assess whether a change of venue is warranted and, if so desirable.”

The defense lawyers argued that they could not realistically meet the February deadline, and that their research would be affected by Holder’s decision, anyway.

“The media attention to that decision risks skewing public perception,” the lawyers argued. “The fallout from the reporting may require that collection of data begin anew to ensure accuracy. That task would be impossible given the presently scheduled deadline.”

Prosecutors have not yet responded to the request.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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