Attorney General Eric Holder has a self-imposed deadline of Friday to decide whether to seek capital punishment against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a.k.a. The Boston Marathon Bomber. Tsarnaev is charged with 30 federal crimes relating to the planning and execution of the Boston Marathon bombing on Apr. 15, 2013. He is charged with placing two homemade bombs made from pressure cookers in strategic areas near the finish line which, when detonated, killed three people and injured another 260. Holder announced his pending decision during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
Although Holder does not believe in the death penalty, he has vowed to enforce the law as it stands just the same as he would enforce any other law. Recent cases that were eligible for capital punishment and were brought by the Justice Department under Holder have resulted in one death sentence and six life sentences. All told, in his time as Attorney General, Holder has approved seeking the ultimate punishment in at least 34 cases.
Tsarnaev’s attorney, Judy Clarke, is well-regarded nationally as a death penalty defense lawyer. It is likely that her team will prepare a strong case in defense of Tsarnaev by saying that, due to his relatively young age of 19, he was influenced by his older brother. That brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot by police four days after the bombings occurred when he engaged the officers in a shootout. Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
In deciding whether to seek capital punishment for Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Holder must also consider that the state in which the federal case will be tried, Massachusetts, has not had the punishment on its books since 1984. Historically, federal cases seeking capital punishment that take place in states without a death penalty law are less likely to win. In the past 19 years, 88 death penalty cases were brought by the Justice Department in states without the law. Of those, only seven were convicted and sentenced to death. There is always an exception to the rule, however, as a Massachusetts jury recently imposed capital punishment in a pending case. Although the judge tossed the death sentence out, Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney in Boston, has vowed to seek the death penalty again instead of allowing the convicted criminal to serve life in prison.
According to former Justice Department prosecutor Larry Mackey, jury selection will be crucial if Tsarnaev stands trial. Jurors will be carefully questioned to see whether they agree with Massachusetts not having a death penalty. Federal law requires that in order for the death penalty to be imposed, all jurors must not only deem him guilty, but they also must be in favor of imposing death as punishment. One juror voting in opposition to the death penalty would mean that Tsarnaev would most likely garner a sentence of life in prison. If the prosecution manages to find and seat 12 people for the jury who are willing to vote for this punishment, the defense is likely to want to negotiate for a guilty plea by Tsarnaev in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.
Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, only three federal death sentences have been carried out. It remains to be seen whether the Boston Marathon Bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, will receive capital punishment for his role in one of the most horrific domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11.
By Jennifer Pfalz