Boston Marathon Bomber Found Guilty, Faces Death Penalty

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Apr 8, 2015

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A federal jury in Massachusetts convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of all 30 charges stemming from his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.  The conviction includes several capital charges, meaning the 21-year-old faces the death penalty in a separate trial phase to begin later this month in front of the same jury.

Boston Marathon Bomber Found Guilty in Federal Court

Two years ago Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan detonated two homemade bombs within one block of the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon.  The discharge killed 3 spectators and injured more than 260 people, leading to a large-scale manhunt that resulted in Tamerlan’s death and Dzhokhar’s capture.  After a long investigation and jury selection process, Massachusetts prosecutors brought Tsarnaev to trial on 30 criminal counts, including murder and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, with the death penalty on the table should he be convicted.  Over the course of 15 days, prosecutors called 92 witnesses to the stand to testify about Tsarnaev’s involvement with the marathon bombings and possible connections to al-Qaida ideology and jihadist sympathies.

Prosecutors argued throughout the trial that Dzhokhar was an equal partner with his brother Tamerlan in planning and executing the attack. The State argued that the defendant was aware of the motives behind the attack and deliberately chose to engage in terrorism without being heavily influenced by his older brother.  Dzhokhar’s own words were used against him during trial when prosecutors presented evidence of a handwritten note the defendant scratched into the inside of a boat he was hiding in after the attacks that stated his choices were “deliberate” and “political.”  Arguing that the attack was “a cold, calculated terrorist act” designed to “tell America that ‘We will not be terrorized by you anymore – we will terrorize you,’” prosecutors told jurors that Tsarnaev acted in bloodthirsty and terroristic manner with malice equal to his brother’s.

After 11 hours of deliberations over the course of two days, jurors in the Massachusetts federal court returned a verdict of guilty on all 30 counts against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The verdict sets the stage for another, and more important, legal showdown during the sentencing phase during which the defense team will build on the foundation laid during trial, and argue that Dzhokhar was heavily influenced by the true mastermind behind the attack, his brother Tamerlan.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Defense Team Points to Older Brother

Throughout the trial, Dzhokhar’s defense attorneys conceded that the defendant played a role in executing the 2013 attack on the Boston Marathon, however, they argued that his older brother Tamerlan acted alone in planning and preparing before convincing Dzhokhar to help him carry out the act.  In what appears to be an effort to avoid the death penalty, Dzhokhar’s attorneys called four expert witnesses to inform jurors that Tamerlan had acted alone in purchasing the materials for the bombs, constructing the devices, and downloading jihadist literature in the days and weeks leading up to the attack.

Evidence presented by the defense will likely be discussed again during the sentencing phase which begins later this month.  In a death penalty trial, a defendant must demonstrate that sufficient mitigating circumstances influenced his or her actions, and in this case Dzhokhar’s attorneys will argue that at the time of the attack he was a 19-year-old college student who had no criminal record but was manipulated by his brother Tamerlan, who was 26 at the time and had substantial influence over Dzhokhar’s way of thinking.

Death Penalty Rare in Massachusetts

If prosecutors are successful in obtaining a death penalty judgment, it will be the first time the state has executed someone since 1947.  In fact, the death penalty is illegal in Massachusetts, and Dzhokhar is only eligible because he was convicted of committing federal capital crimes.  Even in this case where the death penalty is possible, prosecutors must convince jurors pooled from a heavily anti-execution state that the punishment is warranted – a tall order even in these circumstances.  Prosecutors have built their case by arguing that Tsarnaev’s actions were so particularly cruel, heinous, and depraved that he meets the rare circumstances where execution is the appropriate punishment.

Ultimately, the defense’s strategy of admitting to Dzhokhar’s involvement but arguing he was coerced may be enough to convince jurors that, although his actions were deplorable, the defendant did not orchestrate the attack.  After a short break, the same jurors will begin hearing arguments in the all-important sentencing phase where prosecutors will make a strong effort to prove Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was equal to his brother Tamerlan in responsibility for the attack and is deserving of a rare death penalty sentence in the state of Massachusetts.


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