Lawyers for alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev asked a federal judge Tuesday to suspend juror selections in the case, citing the potential for the jury pool to be prejudiced by the recent terror attacks in France.
The attacks in France over three days from Jan. 7-9 left 17 people dead and had similarities to the bombings two years ago in Boston: They were allegedly set off by two brothers, claiming vengeance for fellow Muslims, and they sent a region into days of terror.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued that it will already be difficult to empanel an impartial jury in Boston, just under two years after the Marathon attacks in the same city.
“Even before the Paris attacks, there was no modern precedent of which we are aware for attempting to seat an impartial jury in a community that has been so recently, so grievously, and so widely affected by a single series of crimes,” Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued in court documents. “Now, at the very moment that this [jury selection] attempt is to be made, the Boston bombings are being newly placed at the center of a grim global drama.
“At a minimum, the Court should pause long enough to let this latest storm subside,” the lawyers argued.
Federal prosecutors did not immediately respond to the request. It is not clear if and when the judge will rule on the motion.
The jury selection process is set to move into a second phase on Thursday. Already, more than 1,350 prospective jurors have filled out questionnaires that will help determine whether they can remain impartial. Lawyers have been reviewing those questionnaires in private, and will decide who to exclude.
US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. plans to call the remaining jurors in for more in-depth questioning in person beginning Thursday.
Legal analysts have cited the sensitivity and caution needed in the selection of jurors in Tsarnaev’s case: If he is found guilty of the bombings, the jury will have to decide whether he should be sentenced to death, a rare outcome for a criminal case in the federal court system, particularly in Massachusetts. The state does not have the death penalty.
Tsarnaev, now 21, faces 30 charges, 17 of which carry the possibility for the death penalty, for allegedly setting off the bombs at the Finish Line on April 15, 2013. Three people were killed, more than 260 were injured, and the region was plunged into a weeklong terror scare while law enforcement hunted for Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan.
The Tsarnaev brothers also allegedly killed an MIT police officer before attempting to flee the area. Tamerlan, 26, was killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown.
In France, terrorists killed 12 people at the office of the satire newspaper Charle Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7, an act that they called retribution for the newspaper’s cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The attacks were led by two brothers who had been driven by extreme views of their religion.
The next day, a French policewoman was fatally killed in a related incident. On Jan. 9, four hostages were killed by another terrorist at a Paris kosher grocery store.
In the meantime, France has mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers throughout the country, and has raised terror alerts.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers noted that politicians, news reporters, and commentators have since drawn parallels between the French and Boston attacks, which they said could cause “extraordinary prejudice” among potential jurors.
“It will take time for Boston-area residents, including those in the jury [pool], to come to a reasoned evaluation of what, if anything, the events in Paris signify about the surviving alleged perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing,” the lawyers argued. “That process of reflection should come before – not after – the court has had its only opportunity to question potential jurors about possible bias and prejudgment of the defendant in this case.”