BC Professor Argues Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Trial Appears Far From Over

Wednesday marked the two-year anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Despite this milestone, the story is not over.

On April 8, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, presided over by Judge George O’Toole, BC ’69, convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on all 30 counts. The trial period, which preceded his conviction, lasted for a total of 16 days. Over this period, 95 witnesses were called to the stand to deliver testimony.

The prosecution controlled the vast majority of this process. Tsarnaev’s defense attorney, Judy Clarke, called only four witnesses and openly admitted that her client was responsible for the attack.

A not-guilty verdict was never the defense’s goal from the beginning. Instead, it looked to “humanize him, in preparation for the sentencing phase,” Stephanie Greene of the Boston College business law department said.

The sentencing phase, which will begin after the Boston Marathon on April 21, will be the focus of the defense’s energy, making this portion of the proceedings far more contentious, Greene said. The prosecution will likely argue that Tsarnaev’s actions merit the death penalty. To this end, it will emphasize a number of aggravating factors surrounding Tsarnaev’s crime. The prosecution must make clear the bombing was as a premeditated and intentional act of terrorism. It will also focus on the multiple murders that resulted, and the atrocity of the act.

The defense, in turn, will likely argue for the lesser sentence of life in prison. They will play up the mitigating factors involved in Tsarnaev’s story. These will likely include his troubled youth, susceptibility to the manipulation of his older brother Tamerlan, and young age at the time of the bombing.

In short, none of the facts surrounding the bombings are in dispute, Greene said. Instead, the parties will argue over conflicting views of the perpetrator. One will present him as a cold-blooded terrorist who intentionally inflicted as much harm on innocent people as possible. The other will depict him as a deeply troubled and misled youth guilty of an unforgivable wrong.

After these arguments conclude, the jury will once again be sent to deliberate. This time, they will be made to decide Tsarnaev’s fate. The jury consists of seven women and five men, all Massachusetts residents. Each has explicitly expressed their willingness to apply the death penalty, if they were to deem it necessary. The death penalty is in the case as it falls under federal law. The death penalty has been abolished in Massachusetts since 1984, and has not been exercised since 1947.

“Some people think the Massachusetts population is not as likely to give the death penalty as citizens of another state might be,” Greene said.

The law requires that a death sentence be unanimous among the 12 jurors, which could prove to be a challenge for the prosecution.

Opinion regarding the appropriate verdict is divided. Greene points out that many “feel that if there were ever a case for [the death penalty], this is the case.” They believe that Tsarnaev’s actions, which took three lives and wounded 260 others, require that he pay the ultimate price provided under the law.

Others, however, “still don’t feel that the death penalty is the answer,” Greene said.

While some oppose the death penalty on a fundamental level, others believe that killing Tsarnaev might make him a martyr, Greene argues. Still others assert that life in prison would be a more significant punishment. Greene makes clear that the emotional and ethical reasoning of the 12 jurors charged with the task of deciding upon a sentence will be a powerful influencing factor.

Judge O’Toole informed the jury that the sentencing phase would take approximately one month to complete. In an effort to maintain neutrality, the court specifically instructed jurors to avoid Marathon related events this weekend, according to Boston.com.

If the jury were to return with a sentence of life in prison for Tsarnaev, proceedings would likely end there. If the jury sentences Tsarnaev to death, however, Greene believes there is “absolutely no doubt” that the sentence will be appealed.

The defense would attempt to file an appeal based on issues with procedure during the trial, or flaws with the instructions given to the jury. According to law, such an appeal would first be filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Greene explained that the process could take up to several years.

For now, Bostonians are set to celebrate the running of the 119th Boston Marathon with the knowledge that the tragic narrative which began at the finish line two years ago has not yet reached its end.

Featured Image by Jane Collins / AP Photo