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Tsarnaev seeks change of venue in bombing case

Lawyers for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev asked a federal judge Wednesday to move Tsarnaev’s trial to Washington, D.C., saying a survey they conducted in May shows “an overwhelming presumption of guilt in the District of Massachusetts” and a preference for the death penalty.

The lawyers also argue that the survey shows an “extraordinarily high number of individuals in the potential jury pool who either attended or participated in the 2013 Boston Marathon, or personally know someone who did.”

The trial of Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the most significant domestic terrorism trial before the Boston bombings, was moved to Colorado, said Tsarnaev’s lawyers.


“The community impact here is even greater than that present in [the Oklahoma case], given that the bombings occurred at the Boston Marathon on the day thousands of Bostonians and others from the region gathered to celebrate the runners, the Red Sox, and Patriots Day,” the lawyers said, adding that residents across the area had feared that friends or family members had been hurt. The lawyers also noted the emotional trauma of the weeklong manhunt for the suspects.

“If a change of venue was warranted in [the Oklahoma case], it is even more compelled by the facts presented here,” the lawyers argued.

Prosecutors have not yet responded to the request.

Even though the defense filed the request for a change of venue, the lawyers said they still want to thoroughly review the results of a survey they conducted in May, postponed from March so as not to coincide with the April anniversary of the bombings. They said a preliminary review of the results, however, shows that a majority of respondents in the Boston district think Tsarnaev is guilty and that 37 percent believe he should receive the death penalty.

The survey found a similar presumption of guilt in Springfield and Manhattan.


A survey conducted in the District of Columbia, however, showed that only 37 percent of respondents held a presumption of guilt and only 27 percent favored the death penalty.

Tsarnaev, now 20, faces multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty in the April 15, 2013, bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260.

Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan are also accused of killing MIT police Officer Sean M. Collier.

Tamerlan, 26 at the time, was later killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown.

Tsarnaev’s trial is scheduled for November.

During a brief hearing on the case Wednesday morning, US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who is presiding over the trial, said he will prevent prosecutors from arguing Tsarnaev’s alleged “betrayal of the United States” after he took an oath to become a naturalized citizen should be a reason for him to be sentenced to death if he is convicted, calling the allegation “highly inappropriate.”

“It’s unduly prejudicial, and I will strike” it, O’Toole said.

Tsarnaev is from Kyrgyzstan and became a naturalized US citizen in 2012. The judge said it was inappropriate and unfair to draw a distinction between naturalized citizens and native-born citizens. “Only the former take an oath,” O’Toole said.

The judge said, however, that prosecutors may still attempt to submit evidence related to “betrayal of the United States” in the first phase of Tsarnaev’s trial: to determine whether he was responsible for the bombings.


Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb told the judge that prosecutors plan to prove that Tsarnaev had a motive to “provide aid and comfort to America’s enemies.”

“Motive will be a central issue to the case,” Weinreb said.

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