Boston, MA – A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and ordered that his sentence be reconsidered.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who presided over Tsarnaev’s trial in 2015, “did not meet the standard of fairness” in how he handled jury selection, the Boston Globe reported.
The ruling only affects Tsarnaev’s sentence and not his conviction.
“Just to be crystal clear … Dzhokhar will remain confined to prison for the rest of his life, with the only question remaining being whether the government will end his life by executing him,” Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in the ruling, according to the Boston Globe.
Tsarnaev, now 27, was convicted five years ago in the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon, which left three people dead and more than 260 people wounded.
He and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Police Officer Sean Collier when they were on the run after the bombings, the Boston Globe reported.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a confrontation with police days after the attacks at the marathon, and his younger brother was captured.
The court said that that at least two of the jurors on Tsarnaev’s trial did not fully disclose how much they knew about the case when asked or had already discussed the trial on social media before they were selected to be on the jury, the Boston Globe reported.
Tsarnaev’s attorneys were able to prove that the woman who would become the jury foreperson hid comments she’d made about the defendant on Twitter during jury selection, including one where she wrote that he was a “piece of garbage.”
The court said the judge in that case had erred when he didn’t press potential jury members for more detail about their social media posts and ask more questions, the Boston Globe reported.
“A judge cannot delegate to potential jurors the work of judging their own impartiality,” Thompson wrote.
The court also found that O’Toole mishandled the voir dire for the case, the Boston Globe reported.
“In a case like this, a judge must conduct a very searching and robust jury selection process to ensure that potential jurors haven’t been tainted by negative pretrial publicity,” Northeastern University law professor Daniel S. Medwed said. “And Judge O’Toole cut the defense off at the pass at times, when it sought to do a deeper dive into what specifically prospective readers of the media may have read or heard about the case. The ultimate punishment deserves the ultimate process, and I think … that the trial process was lacking in some respects, especially in the area of jury selection.”
Tsarnaev’s attorneys argued that their client had been denied an impartial jury because the trial was held in the city he had bombed, the Boston Globe reported.
They also said jurors should have been allowed to hear about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s earlier alleged involvement in a triple murder in Waltham in 2011 because part of the defense was that their client was under the control of his violent and domineering older brother, and the appeals court agreed.
“If the judge had admitted this evidence, the jurors would have learned that Dzhokhar knew by the fall of 2012 that Tamerlan had killed the drug dealers in the name of jihad,” the decision read. “They also would have known that it was only after these killings that Dzhokhar became radicalized as well: Evidence actually admitted showed that Dzhokhar first flashed signs of radicalization — as is obvious from his texts on jihad — after spending a holiday break with Tamerlan several weeks or so after learning about the Waltham murders.”
Thompson wrote that this information “might have tipped at least one juror’s decisional scale away from death,” the Boston Globe reported.
Tsarnaev is being held at the Supermax prison known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” in Colorado.
Victims of the bombing were unhappy to hear they would have to go through the painful and emotional sentencing process again, according to the Boston Globe.
“I just don’t understand it,” Patricia Campbell, whose daughter Krystle died in the bombings, said. “It’s just terrible that he’s allowed to live his life. It’s unfair. He didn’t wake up one morning and decide to do what he did. He planned it out. He did a vicious, ugly thing.”
Campbell said she wasn’t sure she would return to court to try to convince another judge to give Tsarnaev the death penalty, the Boston Globe reported.
“I don’t even know if I’d waste my time going,” she said. “The government’s just wasting money. He should be dead by now for what he did.”