Justice Department seeks death penalty for Tsarnaev

February 5th, 2014


The Justice Department announced they would allow lawyers to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been accused of killing and injuring spectators and participants at the Boston Marathon finish line last year.


“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev targeted the Boston Marathon, an iconic event that draws large crowds of men, women and children to its final stretch, making it especially susceptible to the act and effects of terrorism,” prosecutors said in a document filed in Boston’s federal court. The document went on to say Tsarnaev showed no remorse in the attack and cited the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard in advocating for the use of the death penalty.


Timothy J. McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was the last high-profile case that involved the death penalty. Federal prosecutors prohibit using the death penalty as leverage in a plea deal; however, gang members, spies and terrorists have decided to plead guilty when the death penalty is on the table.


In Massachusetts, the death penalty is so unpopular that it has not been used since 1947 and was abolished at the state level in 1984. Polling in Massachusetts shows that most residents oppose the use of the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case, but only jurors who would be willing to consider the death penalty would be used in the trial. However, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is supportive of the Justice Department’s decision.


At the federal level, only three people have been executed since the death penalty was re-instated in 1988. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made the final decision for prosecutors to seek the death penalty, which Holder personally opposes, but has authorized its use multiple times based on the nature of the issue and resulting harm.


Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are Muslim and immigrants of Russia. Together they built the bombs out of pressure cookers and detonated them among spectators at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed three people and wounded 260 and a police officer was killed in the subsequent hunt for the pair at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Investigators believe they have overwhelming evidence against Dzhokar Tsarnaev, including surveillance images from the FBI of Tsarnaev taking off a backpack shortly before the explosion. In interviews with the FBI, Tsarnaev admitted to his involvement in the attack, said law enforcement officials.


Tsarnaev told investigators that their religious beliefs motivated the attack, although investigators do not believe that the duo had support form a foreign terrorist group.


Tamerlan, who is believed to have conceived and led the attack, was killed in a shootout with police and Dzhokhar was caught hiding in a boat on a trailer in a Watertown, Mass., backyard.


While there is no trial date set, Dzhokar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to the attacks. Judy Clarke, a leading defense lawyer in death penalty cases, is among Tsarnaev’s defense team. Clarke has also represented Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a conspirator of the Sept. 11 attacks.


Editor’s Note: Information from The New York Times and NBC News was used in this report.