WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ruling that a lower federal court had provided him a fair trial despite the national media frenzy that surrounded the 2013 attack.
In a case that thrust the debate over the death penalty to the fore, the Biden administration successfully sought to overturn an appeals court ruling that tossed Tsarnaev’s sentence over the way his trial was handled.
A 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court rejected the idea the trial was unfair.
“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority in an opinion that delved deeply into the details of the carnage caused by bombs placed near the marathon’s finish line. “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one.”
Tsarnaev’s lawyers asserted that the trial judge erred when he blocked a jury from considering evidence that Tsarnaev’s older brother had been implicated in a triple murder years before the 2013 marathon attack. The lawyers said the evidence was central to his effort to mitigate his sentence.
Another question in the case that received less attention during oral arguments in October was whether the trial court erred when it declined to ask potential jurors specific questions about their media consumption in the wake of the bombing, such as what they had “read, seen, heard, or experienced” about the incident.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, writing a dissent that was joined by two of his colleagues, noted that when “death is at stake…particular judicial care” is required. Breyer, the court’s most outspoken critic of the death penalty, wrote that the appeals court was correct to rule that the evidence should have been submitted.
“I have written elsewhere about the problems inherent in a system that allows for the imposition of the death penalty,” wrote Breyer, who is expected to step down from the court in June. “This case provides just one more example of some of those problems.”
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The court split along traditional ideological lines, with six justices nominated by Republican presidents in support of reinstating the death penalty and three justices named by Democratic presidents opposing that decision. The court’s conservatives signaled during arguments that they were leaning toward reinstating the sentence.
Tsarnaev, 28, was convicted of dozens of crimes in the attack that killed three people and injured more than 260. The case divided Bostonians, revived a debate over executions and tested President Joe Biden’s opposition to capital punishment.
“Each detonation sent fire and shrapnel in all directions,” Thomas wrote, recalling an attack and subsequent manhunt that held of the nation’s attention for days.
Thomas wrote with painstaking detail about each of the three victims who died in the bombing, including 8-year-old Martin Richard. Metal fragments from the bomb, Thomas wrote, “shot through his abdomen, cutting through his aorta, spinal cord, spleen, liver, pancreas, left kidney, and large intestines.”
The boy, Thomas wrote, “ultimately died from blood loss.”
Tsarnaev received a death sentence in 2015. The Tsarnaev brothers also shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Officer Sean Collier. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police in a Boston suburb after the bombing.
Biden has voiced his personal concerns about capital punishment and his administration imposed a moratorium on federal executions. It was the Trump administration that appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Biden’s administration continued to pursue the government’s case when it came into office.
Given the moratorium, the prospects for Tsarnaev’s execution are not clear. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Biden’s “serious concerns” about capital punishment and said he “respects the process and the ongoing review” the Justice Department is conducting of the death penalty. She did not say specifically whether the president believes Tsarnaev should be put to death.
“He believes that Tsarnaev should be punished for (his) responsibility in the murder of three innocent people,” Psaki said. “I know the deep pain that his crime caused.”