Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have asked a federal appeals court in Boston to replace them as counsel — a routine but crucial first step in what will likely be a lengthy appeal of the Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence.
Five lawyers were appointed to represent Tsarnaev after his arrest in April 2013. Those lawyers represented him during for his five-month death penalty trial in early 2015; he was sentenced to death in June.
His lawyers filed an initial notice of his appeal Jan. 29, after US District Judge George A. O'Toole Jr.'s orders earlier that month rejecting a new trial.
And as part of his appeal, the lawyers asked that they be replaced by new counsel who can take a fresh look at the case.
Only one his lawyers, Judy Clarke, will stay on the case for a short transition period.
The other lawyers who had represented Tsarnaev are David Bruck, Miriam Conrad, William Fick, and Timothy Watkins.
The lawyers asked the appeals court to appoint David Patton, the lead federal defender in New York, and Colorado attorney Gail Johnson to the case. Johnson has an extensive history in death penalty cases.
An appeal of a criminal conviction is typical in federal court, and legal specialists say it is routine for new lawyers to take over a death penalty case during the appeals process.
"You want some new eyes, new blood, and that's what's happening here," said George Kendall, a New York lawyer who has handled hundreds of death penalty cases, including for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tsarnaev's challenge of O'Toole's handling of his trial largely was based on the judge's refusal to relocate the trial outside of Boston. The judge, on multiple occasions, rejected defense arguments that it would be impossible to pick a fair jury in the same city where the bombing occurred.
A federal appeals court panel — possibly the same panel that will hear Tsarnaev's final appeal — rejected a request to intervene before the trial.
Kendall said a new team of lawyers will want to present new arguments to the appeals court on the matter of relocating the trial, as well as other matters.
"This is clearly what happens in major cases," he said, calling it "standard operating procedure and good practice."
Tsarnaev, 22, is being held at the federal supermax prison in Colorado. His older brother, Tamerlan, 26, and his only known accomplice in the attacks, was killed during a firefight with police in Watertown days after the bombings.