Holder: Death penalty decision for Boston bombing suspect due by Friday

Alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev. (Credit: FBI/Reuters)
Alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev. (Credit: FBI/Reuters)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he will decide by Friday whether to seek the death penalty in federal court for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the deadly terror attack alongside his late brother.

Authorities say, Tsarnaev, now 20, and his brother Tamerlan planted two homemade bombs near the Boylston Street finish line of the April 15 marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260 others.

Three days later, the pair allegedly shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, prompting a massive day-long manhunt that ended with the death of Tamerlan, 26, and the capture of Dzhokhar, who was found hiding and injured in a dry docked boat.

Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to 30 charges, including 17 that carry the potential of the death penalty. A trial date has not been set.

“Looking at (Holder’s) track record, I could very well see him okaying the U.S. Attorney’s request to seek the death penalty in this case,” said Chris Dearborn, associate clinical professor of law at Suffolk University.

The tricky part, according to Dearborn, would be getting an entire jury on board.

“It may be harder to find a jury to consider capital punishment. The jury would have to be found impartial by a judge. Questions submitted would likely include, ‘Would you be able to consider imposing a death penalty at the sentencing phase?’ If jurors say, ‘No, I’m morally opposed to that,’ they’d get kicked off,” said Dearborn.

Massachusetts, which no longer practices the death penalty, has not carried out an execution for 66 years.

Regardless, if convicted, Tsarnaev’s execution could still be carried out within the state, but would likely be put off by a lengthy appeal process, Dearborn said.

Contributing factors in the death-penalty decision making process include the seriousness of the crime, the number of victims, the suspect’s prior criminal history, and his acceptance of responsibility, among others.

Mitigating factors are also considered, like whether Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time, was controlled by his older brother, Tamerlan, who has been accused of masterminding the attack.

A statewide poll conducted by The Boston Globe in September showed that 33 percent of those questioned favored the death penalty for Tsarnaev, while the majority – 57 percent – believed he should get life without parole.

The poll included answers from 704 randomly selected Bostonians.

Sixty-one percent of Democrats favored life without parole, while 49 percent of Republicans supported it.

A life sentence was endorsed by both genders, across all education levels, and among white, black and Hispanic respondents.

Earlier this month, The Boston Bar Association, which represents more than 10,000 lawyers, released an internal study taking a strong stand against federal capital punishment.

And it’s not just Massachusetts; a Change.org poll, created by a Minnesota man, has racked up over 1,000 signatures opposing the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

“If I were a betting person, I’d say it’s likely that the feds are going to seek the death penalty,” said James Rooney, president of Mass. Citizens Against the Death Penalty.

Founded in 1928, the group is the oldest continuously active anti-death penalty organization in the nation, and has staged protests against the prospect of executing convicted killer Gary Lee Sampson, a drifter from Abington who went on a killing spree in 2001.

“I think (federal prosecutors) fear standing up in front of the press and saying, ‘No, we’re not seeking the death penalty,’ and having to explain why,” said Rooney.

“This was in a big public arena. Anybody could have been there, and a lot of people were. It affects people in a way that a lot of crime doesn’t. Still, the public hasn’t been jumping around and saying, ‘We’ve got to kill this 19-year-old.’”

Follow Morgan Rousseau on Twitter: @MetroMorgan
Follow Metro Boston on Twitter: @MetroBOS


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