The long-awaited trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is set to begin Wednesday with opening statements in federal court in Boston, the start of what could be the most complete official recounting yet of the Boston Marathon bombings that forever changed the city nearly two years ago.
US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. completed the nearly two-month-long process of seating 12 jurors and six alternates Tuesday morning, and defense lawyers appeared ready for a trial in which they will present Tsarnaev as a reluctant participant in the fatal bombings. The defense lawyers’ goal: to save him from the death penalty.
The jurors who could decide Tsarnaev’s fate include a house painter, a young auditor who was recently fired from his job, a fashion designer, an air traffic controller, and a legal secretary at a law firm.
Those seated on the panel said they could remain open-minded and decide the case fairly. All said they could impose the death penalty if it is warranted.
“You don’t know if someone is guilty or not until the case is over, that’s kind of a point of a trial,” said one juror, a clerk at a Barnes & Noble store on the North Shore.
O’Toole has told jurors the trial could last three to four months — possibly extending into June. Court officials are expecting a heavy turnout of spectators, and many of the bombing survivors are expected to attend.
Tsarnaev, 21, faces 30 charges, including 17 that carry the possibility of the death penalty, for his alleged role in the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. One bomb exploded in front of Marathon Sports on Boylston Street, killing Krystle Marie Campbell, a 29-year-old from Medford. The second bomb went off in front of the Forum restaurant, killing Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student, and Martin Richard, an 8-year-old boy from Dorchester.
More than 260 others suffered injuries.
Tsarnaev and his older brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also allegedly shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier before attempting to flee the area. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown.
Because Tsarnaev faces the death penalty, the trial will be held in two stages. The jurors will first have to decide whether Tsarnaev is guilty. If so, the same jury would decide in a separate trial whether the crimes warrant capital punishment. Jurors would hear prosecutors cite aggravating factors in the bombings — reasons Tsarnaev should get the death penalty — while defense attorneys would raise mitigating factors in an effort to portray Tsarnaev as less culpable and worthy of sparing from capital punishment.
As the trial begins Wednesday, each side will have about 45 minutes to provide an opening statement, offering an overview of their cases to the jury.
Tsarnaev attorney David Bruck has said the defense team will show that the younger Tsarnaev fell victim to “domination by, love for, adoration for, submission to” his older brother, Tamerlan, whom the attorney has depicted as domineering and coercive.
Bruck has said if it weren’t for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, “the Boston Marathon bombing would have never occurred.”
Legal analysts say the defense team will probably present the narrative of a coercive older brother from the beginning of opening statements, not to declare Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s innocence, but to imprint a consistent theme on the jurors that he is more deserving of a sentence of life in prison.
“You can expect that the opening statements will be entirely upfront and honest with the jury about the total picture,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University School of Law.
He said defense lawyers would probably use both stages of the trial as a “single entity” and make their case consistently from the beginning.
“It’s very important because it goes to the whole idea that you lay your cards on the table for the jury and hope they have a favorable response to the entire picture,” Freedman said.
David Hoose, a Northampton attorney with Sasson Turnbull Ryan & Hoose and one of the few in New England who specialize in the death penalty, added, “The traditional thinking for the defense team is, if you have a story to tell, you want to get started on it early.”
“You can expect they are going to key in on things . . . and the same themes are going to be sounded early and often,” he said.
One legal issue bound to hover over the trial is the defense team’s ongoing doubt that a jury in Boston can fairly decide the case. They have requested four times that the trial be moved, though O’Toole has refused, saying he could pick an impartial jury. A federal appeals court in Boston twice refused to intervene.
In January, 1,373 prospective jurors filled out a 28-page questionnaire, and O’Toole interviewed 256 jurors in person over 21 days before finally seating what he has deemed to be a fair panel.
Some of the jurors who were chosen told O’Toole they believed that Tsarnaev is guilty, though they could remain open-minded to the evidence. They include a retired actuary who said she would want to make sure Tsarnaev is guilty because there is no room for error in a capital case; and a man who worked in telecommunications as a salesman who said that while he would consider whether the death penalty is warranted, he views life in prison as a worse punishment.
One juror, a student whose family fled religious persecution in Iran, said the death penalty might take “away the burden of a person’s soul.”
Hoose, the legal analyst, said attorneys probably followed a strategy in deciding whom to strike from the jury pool, but even so, there is no way to predict a jury’s decision.
“All of the questioning in the world . . . it’s all helpful in terms of narrowing it down, but at the end, there’s a lot of guesswork,” Hoose said. “There will always be surprises; you’re not going to know what’s going to happen once that door closes.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.