The U.S. Supreme Court has granted the Justice Department's request to review a lower court's decision that vacated the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The lower court had said the original trial judge did not secure an impartial jury for the trial.
The 2013 bombing, which Tsarnaev carried out with his brother Tamerlan, killed three people and injured 264 others. The Chechen immigrant was convicted of all 30 charges brought against him in 2015, and a court imposed six death sentences and 11 concurrent life sentences.
But a three-judge panel from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the death penalty sentences last July, citing errors by the lower court. It sent the case back to the federal district court.
Tsarnaev's defense team has not denied that he participated in the attack, in which two pressure cooker bombs were detonated as runners crossed the race's finish line. But they argued that he was under the strong influence of his older brother, who was killed during the massive manhunt that locked down most of the Boston metropolitan area in the days after the attack.
Tsarnaev, 27, is being held at the high-security supermax federal prison near Florence, Colo.
The appeals panel said the judge who presided over Tsarnaev's trial had rejected the defense team's request for a more distant trial venue, where prospective jurors might be less likely to be biased against Tsarnaev than in eastern Massachusetts.
While the judge had promised local jurors would be adequately screened, the panel ruled that the trial judge had failed to impanel an impartial jury.
"A core promise of our criminal-justice system is that even the very worst among us deserves to be fairly tried and lawfully punished," Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in the court's 224-page opinion.
Thompson wrote that the judge stopped Tsarnaev's counsel from asking prospective jurors questions such as what they knew about the case before coming to court, or what stood out to them from the media coverage they had seen about the bombing and its aftermath.
Appeals Court Judge Juan Torruella, who died late last year, wrote that the district court judge had relied on "self-declarations of impartiality" by prospective jurors, some of whom admitted before the trial that they were convinced Tsarnaev was guilty.
For example, Torruella noted that the woman who became the jury's foreperson withheld from the court dozens of relevant social media comments that mourned the death of an 8-year-old victim, praised law enforcement officers and called Tsarnaev "a piece of garbage."
The ruling from last July ordered the district court to impanel a new jury to hold a sentencing retrial for the death penalty convictions. But the appeals panel noted that Tsarnaev, who told the courtroom on the day of his sentencing that he was "guilty of this attack," would remain in prison for the rest of his life regardless of whether the death sentence is imposed.
The appeal was filed by the Trump administration, which prioritized carrying out federal executions in its final year — resuming a practice that had been paused for nearly two decades and prompting pushback from activists and lawmakers.
Under former President Trump, the U.S. executed 13 people on federal death row in the span of six months, including three in the week before President Biden took office.
Biden opposes capital punishment and has said he will "work to end its use."
It is not immediately clear how his administration will approach the Tsarnaev case. The Associated Press notes that the initial prosecution and decision to seek a death sentence was made by the Obama administration, during Biden's tenure as vice president.