Two years after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible, was convicted of six of the thirty federal terrorism charges brought against him and was sentenced to death. In July 2020, an appeal was brought to the U.S Court of Appeals based in Boston, citing that the death penalty should be overturned on the grounds of an unfair trial.
It was a unanimous circuit panel that Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote about the “core promises of the criminal justice system,” citing her belief that “even the very worst among us deserve to be fairly tried and punished.” The appeals court determined that Tsarnaev’s case did not meet that standard, justifying the decision.
The main point that was brought up by the appeals court was that they believed the U.S District Judge George O’Toole Jr., failed to allow enough questioning of potential jurors about how closely they followed news coverage of the bombings. In addition, the appeals court also said that the judge should have allowed Tsarnaev’s layers to bring in evidence that would suggest that the younger Tsarnaev was heavily influenced by his older brother. This evidence was in the form of a 2011 triple homicide in Waltham, suspected to be committed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The 2020 decision to reverse the death penalty sentence was met with fierce outrage. Most notably, former President Donald Trump called the decision “ridiculous,” leading his administration to expedite an appeal to the U.S Supreme Court.
The Biden administration later halted the remaining federal executions to review the government’s policy, however, it has continued to defend Tsarnaev’s death sentence, even renewing Trump’s appeal.
Despite the national media frenzy that surrounded the 2013 attack, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower federal court had provided Tsarnaev a fair trial, reinstating the death penalty sentence. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority opinion, citing the Sixth Amendment as the reason for his opinion. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” he said plainly, however, “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one.”
The vote was 6-3, split along ideological lines, rejecting the defense claims that Judge George O’Toole Jr. at Tsarnaev’s 2015 trial restricted the questioning of a prospective juror on the claims that they extensively followed media coverage and would therefore be biased in their decision making. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion that “discretion does not vanish when a case garners public attention,” emphasizing that two years passed between the trial and the bombing.
On the issue of the defense’s wanting to bring in evidence of the 2011 triple homicide case, Thomas disagreed with the appeals court. He wrote that judges could exclude evidence if it could create unfair prejudice or confuse or mislead the jury. Most notably, in the majority opinion, he brought up how there was simply insufficient evidence to describe any possible participation that Tamerlan may have had in this case. The notion of bringing this evidence up without any concrete beliefs about who committed this crime was, what Thomas called, “a waste of time.”
However, the three dissenting justices— Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan— believed the judge should have allowed the jury to hear the evidence of the Waltham murders.