U.S. to seek death penalty in Boston bombing
FILE - This file photo provided Friday, April 19, 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in the bombings on April 15, 2013 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. On Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder authorized the government to seek the death penalty in the case against Tsarnaev. (AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Investigation, File)
FILE - In this Friday, April 19, 2013 Massachusetts State Police file photo, 19-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloody and disheveled with the red dot of a sniper's rifle laser sight on his head, emerges from a boat at the time of his capture by law enforcement authorities in Watertown, Mass. On Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder authorized the government to seek the death penalty in the case against Tsarnaev. (AP Photo/Massachusetts State Police, Sean Murphy, File)
FILE - This combination of undated file photos shows the two brothers the FBI initially said were suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday, April 15, 2013, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a gunfight with police several days later, while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured and lies in a hospital prison. Three more suspects have been taken into custody in the marathon bombings, police said Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (AP Photo/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young, File)
The Justice Department announced yesterday that it would seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 20-year-old man whom prosecutors have accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 200 others.
“The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a short statement.
The announcement ended months of speculation over the issue. Although Holder has said that he is personally opposed to the death penalty, the bombing was among the worst terrorist attacks in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
The decision sets the stage for the biggest federal capital murder case since Timothy McVeigh went on trial for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with the police in April, constructed and set off homemade bombs near the finish line of the marathon, according to investigators. Tsarnaev faces multiple counts in the April 15 bombing and is also accused of killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer in the days after the attack.
The U.S. attorney in Boston, Carmen Ortiz, said in a statement that prosecutors there supported the decision and that the “trial team is prepared to move forward.”
Prosecutors also cited Tsarnaev’s “lack of remorse” and allegations that Tsarnaev committed the killings after “substantial planning and premeditation.”
In addition, they cited his alleged decision to target the Boston Marathon, “an iconic event that draws large crowds of men, women and children to its final stretch, making it especially susceptible to the act and effects of terrorism.”
Tsarnaev’s lawyers had no immediate comment.
The case is in its early stages, and prosecutors could yet use the threat of death to strike a plea bargain with the young man and avoid a lengthy trial with bombing victims taking the stand to recount the attack.
Since 1964, the federal government has executed only three people, including McVeigh.
In an interview several months ago, Holder told the Washington Post that he would most likely make the decision late at night at his kitchen table, after reviewing all of the information.
Lee Ann Yanni, 32, of Boston, who was wounded in the attack, said she had mixed emotions about the use of the death penalty in the case.
“It’s not going to change what happened,” she said. “I really don’t think there is a right or wrong in this situation. It’s not going to bring anybody back.”
Jarrod Clowery, whose legs were peppered with shrapnel and debris, described himself as “ambivalent” about Holder’s decision.
“I think those boys were tried and convicted by a power higher than all of us the moment they did what they did,” said Clowery, who was one of a group of friends from Stoneham, Mass., near the finish line when the explosives went off. Just two weeks ago, Clowery had more surgery on his ruptured left eardrum.
In May, a Post-ABC News poll found that 70 percent of those surveyed favored the death penalty in the Boston case.
However, in Massachusetts, which abolished its own death penalty in 1984, a Boston Globe poll conducted in September found that 57 percent of those questioned favored a life sentence for Tsarnaev, while 33 percent supported the death penalty for him.
If a jury convicts Tsarnaev, it will then hold a second phase of the trial to determine his punishment.
Juries are asked to weigh aggravating factors cited by the government against mitigating factors raised by the defense in deciding whether a defendant should be executed. In Tsarnaev’s case, mitigating factors could include his young age and claims that he played a secondary role in the crime.
Jurors for federal cases tried in Boston are drawn from the Boston metropolitan area and eastern Massachusetts – a politically liberal region, but also the part of the state most directly affected by the tragedy.
Two other federal death penalty cases have been brought in Massachusetts. A former veterans hospital nurse who killed four patients by overdosing them was spared the death penalty by a jury. Gary Lee Sampson, accused in the carjack killings of two Massachusetts men, was sentenced to death in 2003, but the punishment was overturned and he is awaiting a new penalty trial.
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, 70 death sentences have been imposed, but only three have been carried out.
The last federal execution was in 2003, when Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. was put to death for kidnapping 19-year-old Army Pvt. Tracie McBride from a Texas military base, raping her and beating her to death with a tire iron.
A trial date has not been set for Tsarnaev, who was badly injured while trying to escape a massive dragnet of FBI agents and local police officers.
Prosecutors will be facing a defense team that includes Judy Clarke, who has successfully kept several famous clients off death row, including “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski and serial bomber Eric Rudolph. Both pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
Clarke did not respond to requests for comment.
Legal experts have said that court filings suggest the defense may try to save Tsarnaev’s life by arguing that he fell under the evil influence of his older brother.
“I think their focus . . . will probably be to characterize it as coercion, intimidation and just his will being overborne by the older brother,” said Gerry Leone, a former state and federal prosecutor in Boston who secured a conviction against shoe bomber Richard Reid.
“They’ll, say, talk about how he was a teenager, never been in trouble before, and in many respects, looks like the average United States college student.”
In addition to the use of a weapon of mass destruction, the crimes that carry the death penalty include: bombing of a place of public use resulting in death; possession and use of a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in death; and malicious destruction of property resulting in personal injury and death.
Many of the victims suffered wounds to their legs because of where the bombs were placed; 16 victims had to have legs amputated.
The attack strained relations with Russia after security officials in Moscow had alerted the FBI to its suspicions that one of the brothers was an Islamic radical in touch with militants in the Caucuses. But Russian officials didn’t provide additional information that might have led the bureau to launch a more serious investigation, perhaps thwarting the attack.
In 2011, FBI agents conducted what is known as an assessment and then closed the case after failing to uncover any indication that the two brothers were engaged in terrorism. The FBI interviewed the older brother and other family members but found no evidence that either of the men had become dangerously radicalized.
The assessment was one of approximately 1,000 the FBI’s Boston Field Office conducted in 2011.
A senior FBI official said recently that there was no evidence the two brothers, ethnic Chechen refugees, had any assistance from overseas terrorists in carrying out their plan.
The Tsarnaev brothers came to the United States in 2002 from the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Authorities have said Tamerlan Tsarnaev came under the influence of radical Islam and probably recruited his brother to help him with the bombing.
After the bombing, investigators said a friend linked the older brother to a gruesome triple homicide in Waltham, Mass. Ibragim Todashev said the older brother was connected to the killings in which three men had their throats slashed.
Authorities said that Todashev, who was trained in mixed martial arts, attacked an FBI agent during a May interview in Florida. The FBI agent shot and killed the Chechen-American.
The senior FBI official said the agent who killed Todashev was acting in self-defense and described it as a “clean shoot.” But the FBI has not made public the results of an internal review into the shooting or a larger review that examined the attack.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)