It was a shocking terrorist attack, a bombing near the finish line of the 125th running of the famed Boston Marathon in April 2013 that killed three spectators and injured more than 260 others.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether to reinstate the death penalty for convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The court is reviewing a 2020 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision that overturned Tsarnaev's federal death penalty and instead sentenced the Kyrgyzstan-born terrorist to life without parole. The lower court found that his trial could have been tainted by jurors who had already made up their minds because of the publicity surrounding the high-profile case that kept Americans glued to their televisions for days.
At Wednesday's hearing, the nine justices seemed divided along ideological lines. The six conservative members appeared open to the argument that the death penalty should be reimposed and that the original trial judge acted properly. But the three liberal justices appeared sympathetic to arguments that Tsarnaev played a lesser role in the bombing and that evidence to that effect should not have been excluded from the trial.
President Joe Biden has spoken out against federal executions, which the former Trump administration resumed carrying out last year. Even so, Biden's deputy solicitor general, Eric Feigin, urged the high court to reimpose the death penalty, describing Tsarnaev as a "motivated terrorist who willingly maimed and murdered innocents, including an 8-year-old boy, in furtherance of jihad."
Tsarnaev's lawyer, Ginger Anders, countered that her client, who was 19 at the time of the bombing, was less responsible for the bombing because he was influenced by his older brother and co-bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who allegedly masterminded the deadly attack. Four days after the bombing, Tamerlan died of gunshot wounds and SUV injuries after a car chase and shootout with police.
"There is no dispute that the bombings were a grievous and shocking act of terrorism, but that the lower court had made two serious errors that compromised safeguards needed to ensure that he received an appropriate penalty," Anders told the justices. "The evidence made it vastly more likely that he acted under Tamerlan's radicalizing influence and that Tamerlan led the bombings."
"Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison," Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson said in the appeals court decision overturning the death penalty sentence. The U.S. Department of Justice under both the Trump and Biden administrations appealed the ruling.
Explosions at the finish line
On April 15, 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev placed two homemade "pressure cooker" bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon that exploded as runners of the 42-kilometer (26-mile) race arrived.
A massive manhunt ensued. Three days later, the brothers shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer. On April 19, Tamerlan died after the gun battle with police. Dzhokhar, who had been shot, escaped. He surrendered to police later that evening after they found him hiding in a boat on a trailer.
Last March, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case six years after Tsarnaev, now 28, was convicted on 30 counts, including using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. The trial lasted six weeks, and the district court imposed the death penalty on six of 17 capital counts.
"Tsarnaev made the choice to commit a terrorist attack against children and other innocent spectators at the marathon, and the jury held him accountable for that choice," acting Solicitor General Brian Fletcher said in his filing to the high court. "We do not contest the older brother's leadership role, and that defense lawyers were able to make that case. Still, the jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death."
Death penalty debate
The highly publicized case has reignited America's long-standing debate over the death penalty. In July, Attorney General Merrick Garland temporally halted all federal executions amid a review of the Justice Department's policies and procedures related to capital punishment.
The bomber's fate has also divided the families of victims in the bombing.
"I favor the death penalty," Patty Campbell, mother of Krystle Campbell who died in the attack, told The Boston Globe. "An eye for an eye feels appropriate."
By contrast, bombing victim Mikey Borgard, who suffered hearing loss and brain injury, told Reuters, "I think it's easy for folks to say that they're anti-death penalty, until something happens to them. But I was never pro-death penalty in this case."
Some legal experts noted that capital punishment tends to draw out cases for years.
"That's one of the problems with death penalty litigation. It just goes on too long, to the detriment of victims who have to suffer through the repeated appeals," Reuters quoted Andrew Lelling, a former federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, as saying.
Public opinion polls suggest a majority of Americans favor life without parole over the death penalty.
A decision from the Supreme Court in the Tsarnaev case is expected next year.