Lawyers for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Thursday challenged the jury selection process as a federal judge began questioning potential jurors in the case involving the largest attack on U.S. soil since 2001.
Defense attorney David Bruck complained that U.S. District Judge George O'Toole was not asking sufficiently detailed questions as he began reviewing the first group of 20 jurors summoned, as the court works to whittle down a field of 1,350 candidates to a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.
Tsarnaev, 21, faces the threat of execution if convicted of killing three people and injuring 264 in the largest mass-casualty attack in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. He is also charged with killing a police officer three days after the April 15, 2013, bombing.
After the first three candidates were examined, Bruck paused proceedings to contend that O'Toole was not asking jurors specifically if they would be able to vote for life in prison if they found Tsarnaev guilty of the terrorism charges.
"It doesn't matter whether the juror might vote for life in an unintentional killing because that's not what we're dealing with," Bruck said. "We really don't think we're going to have a fair jury unless they're asked."
O'Toole noted that all the jurors summoned for questioning had already filled out detailed written questionnaires, which indicated they could vote either way.
"Digging for details from someone who hasn't prepared by spending time and recalling all that will not likely yield reliable answers," said O'Toole, who is doing all the questioning.
Tsarnaev appeared in court on Thursday wearing a sport jacket and collared shirt, more formally dressed than in last week's appearances, and seems to have trimmed his bushy hair.
He smiled and joked with his attorneys while waiting for jurors to arrive, a contrast from his disaffected demeanor last week.
The depth of emotion surrounding the attack on the historic race, which draws the world's top marathoners, was illustrated in the questioning of the first few candidates, which included a man whose wife was a hospital nurse who treated victims of the blast.
Asked if he could put those emotions aside, the man replied, "It's tough, because it hit my wife hard... I possibly could, yes.”
Thousands were crowded around the finish line when the two pressure-coooker bombs went off, and hundreds of thousands around Boston were ordered to remain in their homes four days later during the hunt for the bombers.
Another candidate, a young man, said his roommates were excited that he might be chosen. "They think it's very cool that I would get to sentence him to death," the man said.
Candidates need not be unaware of the attacks to be eligible to serve, O'Toole has said, though they must have an open mind on whether Tsarnaev is guilty or innocent until they have heard the evidence. If they find him guilty, they must be willing to at least consider voting for execution.