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Lawyers for Tsarnaev again seek delay in trial

Too many pieces of evidence to be ready, they say

(FBI)

Lawyers for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev again asked a federal judge to postpone the highly anticipated trial, now scheduled for Jan. 5, saying they have been overwhelmed by the thousands of documents and pieces of evidence in the case that have come in “on a nearly weekly basis.”

Just last week, prosecutors turned over a witness list with more than 730 names, and identified 1,238 exhibits and 413 digital files that could be used as evidence, the defense lawyers complained. The government provided a trove of other digital records, the lawyers said.

“To commence trial as scheduled on Jan. 5 would threaten both the fairness and finality of the proceedings,” the defense team argued. They have asked that the case be postponed until September.

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“It [is] impossible for the defense to digest this information, much less attempt to pursue investigative leads it may suggest, in time to make effective use of it at trial.”

Federal prosecutors did not respond to the request, but have said that defense lawyers have had adequate time to prepare. US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. rejected a request in September to postpone the trial to the fall of 2015, though he agreed to push it back from a previously scheduled start date of November 2014.

O’Toole held what is known as a final status conference last week, which was attended by Tsarnaev, and the judge appeared intent on beginning jury selection on Jan. 5. Jury summons have been sent to residents across Eastern Massachusetts, and O’Toole questioned Tsarnaev to be sure he understood that his trial was about to begin.

Tsarnaev, now 21, faces multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty. He is accused of setting off the bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, when three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. He and his older brother, Tamerlan, also allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was later killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers have sought to portray Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a dominating, influential older brother who coerced the younger Tsarnaev to take part in the bombings. But they argued that they need more time to review the evidence.

The defense lawyers pointed out that they will have to review the recent statements of Tsarnaev’s friend Stephen Silva, who pleaded guilty to federal gun possession charges last week in a secret agreement with prosecutors. The defense lawyers indicated Tuesday that prosecutors might argue that the gun that Tamerlan Tsarnaev allegedly used to kill MIT police officer Sean Collier came from Silva, through the younger Tsarnaev.

The defense lawyers said it was unfair for prosecutors to disclose so much information on the eve of jury selection. They contend the case is already on a fast track to trial, scheduled to begin 18 months after Tsarnaev was indicted, which is a faster time frame than 99 of the 119 federal capital trials since 2004.

Meanwhile, the lawyers complained, the case continues to receive pretrial publicity. They noted that Governor-elect Charlie Baker called Tsarnaev the “person he most despises,” in a Globe questionnaire.

With a Jan. 5 start date, the sentencing phase of Tsarnaev’s trial — if he is found guilty — could be taking place in April, about the time of the second anniversary of the bombings. The publicity of the anniversary would inevitably influence jurors, the lawyers argued.

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“The risk could be avoided — and the fairness of the trial increased — by waiting to begin trial until after the anniversary has passed,” the lawyers argued.

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