BOSTON — The Biden administration is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev despite the president’s vocal opposition to capital punishment.
Justice Department lawyers wrote in court documents filed Monday that the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong when it threw out the 27-year-old’s death sentence last year over concerns about the jury selection process.
Calling Tsarnaev’s case “one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our Nation’s history,” the solicitor general’s office — which represents the administration before the high court — said the Supreme Court should “put this case back on track toward a just conclusion.”
“The jury carefully considered each of respondent’s crimes and determined that capital punishment was warranted for the horrors that he personally inflicted—setting down a shrapnel bomb in a crowd and detonating it, killing a child and a promising young student, and consigning several others ‘to a lifetime of unimaginable suffering,'” it wrote. “That determination by 12 conscientious jurors deserves respect and reinstatement by this Court.”
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in an email that the Justice Department “has independence regarding such decisions.” But Bates said the president “believes the Department should return to its prior practice, and not carry out executions.”
An email seeking comment was sent to a lawyer for Tsarnaev.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration, which carried out the executions of 13 federal inmates in its final six months in office, appealed the July 2020 appeals court ruling to the high court. Then-Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press last year that the Trump administration would “do whatever’s necessary.”
The initial prosecution and decision to seek a death sentence was made by the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president. Biden has pledged to seek an end to the federal death penalty, but he has said nothing about how he plans to do so.
The Supreme Court agreed in March to hear the case. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time that President Joe Biden 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.” She said “he has also expressed his horror at the events of that day and Tsarnaev’s actions.”
The appeals court ordered a new penalty-phase trial to decide whether Tsarnaev should be executed for the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others, finding that the judge who oversaw the case did not adequately screen jurors for potential biases. Observers have been watching whether the Biden administration would stop pursuing the death penalty for Tsarnaev and agree to life in prison.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers acknowledged at the beginning of his trial that he and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, set off the two bombs at the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. But they argued that Dzhokar Tsarnaev is less culpable than his brother, who they said was the mastermind behind the attack.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a gunbattle with police a few days after the bombing. Dzhokar Tsarnaev is now behind bars at a high-security supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Tsarnaev was convicted on 30 charges, including conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction. The 1st Circuit upheld all but a few of his convictions.
Story by Alanna Durkin Richer.