The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to review a lower court decision that overturned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death penalty in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and wounded hundreds more.
Tsarnaev could spend the remainder of his life in jail for “unspeakably violent crimes,” but a federal appeals court ruled in July that he should be granted a fresh penalty-phase trial, citing jury selection problems and a failure to adequately test jurors for prejudice.
The death penalty was vacated, and a new penalty-phase trial was ordered, but the appeals court cautioned that Tsarnaev “would spend his remaining days locked up in jail.”
Tsarnaev was found guilty in 2015 of murdering Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, and Lingzi Lu at the Boston Marathon, as well as Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier a few days later. In Florence, Colorado, he is being held in federal jail.
The case will most likely be heard by the Supreme Court later this year.
The Trump administration had asked the Supreme Court to intervene, claiming that the bombs had “caused devastating injuries that left the street with a devastated, combat-zone look,” with “blood and body parts scattered among BBs, nails, metal pieces, and glass fragments.”
The government’s motion meticulously detailed the events of the day of the bombing and was harshly critical of the appeals court decision that overturned the conviction in one of the “most successful terrorism cases in our nation’s history,” according to the government.
The case was taken up this term by then-acting Solicitor General Jeff Wall, who argued that the “victims, prospective jurors, the district court, the government, and the country” should not have to bear the burdens of trying to reinstate the death penalty.
Given the Biden administration’s resistance to the federal death penalty, it’s uncertain if Tsarnaev would be executed even though the death penalty was restored.
In a press conference following the Supreme Court’s decision, White House press secretary Jen Psaki referred to Biden’s campaign position on the death penalty and his “grave” reservations about capital punishment.
“President Biden made clear, as he did on the campaign trail, that he has grave concerns about whether capital punishment, as currently implemented, is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness. He’s also expressed his horror at the events of that day and … Tsarnaev’s actions,” Psaki said.
According to Psaki, the White House is unaware of any modifications to the federal death penalty program.
Despite the fact that the Trump administration filed the appeal with the Supreme Court, CNN Supreme Court analyst Steve Vladeck and professor at the University of Texas School of Law said the Biden Justice Department’s legal role in the case has not changed.
“It may be that the legal issue, about just how carefully district courts in capital cases have to screen prospective jurors, is one that the current Justice Department wants the justices to clarify even if it has no intention of carrying out a potential death sentence down the road,” Vladeck said.
According to prosecutors, Tsarnaev was 19 years old when he and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, went to Boston’s Boylston Street shortly before 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, to carry out their plot, which involved pressure cooker bombs containing gunpowder, nails, and BBs.
The bombings triggered a manhunt that lasted days and brought the city to a halt. While on the hunt, the brothers murdered Collier before stealing an SUV. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police, and Dzhokhar was apprehended the next day.