The first prospective juror to be questioned Thursday by the judge in the Boston Marathon bombing trial was a young advertising executive, who said his friends thought it was “really cool” that he might serve on a panel that could decide whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lives or dies.
“They very much want to sentence him to death,” the man said, adding that he strongly agreed. “I can’t imagine any evidence that would change what I think happened.”
Next was a middle-aged insurance manager whose wife, an ICU nurse, treated some of the 260 people injured in the twin blasts that killed three people in April 2013. “It’s tough,” he said. “It hit my wife hard. Particularly dealing with the patients.” But to put Tsarnaev to death, he said, “it has to be 100% guilt — rock solid.”
Thursday marked the first day of individual questioning of jury candidates in the federal capital trial for the 21-year-old Tsarnaev, accused by U.S. officials of planting a pressure-cooker bomb near the end of the marathon route.
Meeting on the third floor of the downtown federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., prosecutors and defense lawyers began the difficult work of finding a fair and impartial jury in the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11.
Central to the task is whether the judge can find 12 people from Boston who can really presume Tsarnaev is innocent. Defense attorneys insist the answer is no, but the judge repeatedly rebuffed their efforts to move the trial to another city.
And if Tsarnaev is found guilty, the second question hanging in the air Thursday was whether prospective jurors would be willing to impose the death penalty, or conversely, if they could withstand public pressure and spare Tsarnaev by sentencing him to life in prison with no parole.
“Let’s face it,” defense lawyer David I. Bruck told the judge, referring to any jury verdict short of the death penalty. “We know how that would be received. There would be such an explosion of outrage. We know that. And these jurors know that.”
Despite grave doubts expressed by defense lawyers that Boston is the proper setting for the trial, the judge has pushed ahead. After the Paris terrorist attacks last week, Tsarnaev’s lawyers asked for a monthlong suspension of jury selection. The judge said no without even seeking a response from prosecutors.
“A fair and impartial jury can and will be chosen to determine the issues in this case,” the judge said.
For the government, anything less than death for Tsarnaev could be seen as a failure. But the trial will be held in the largely liberal state of Massachusetts, where the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1982. The last time the state took a life was when it sent two gangsters to the electric chair for killing a Marine. That was in 1947.
Indeed, most of the candidates questioned Thursday strongly opposed the death penalty.
“I’m committed against it,” said a male custodian at the Chelsea District Court. A software engineer agreed: “I just believe it’s completely wrong to kill another man.”
A Catholic theology professor at a New England college was equally adamant. “I will not vote for the death penalty, under any circumstances,” he said. “Our prison system, I think, is generally reliable and the public will be safe from any harm from a potential killer.”
A few felt differently, saying that what happened at the marathon finish line was simply too heinous. “I believe in the death penalty in this particular situation,” said a makeup artist. “I have firm faith in it.”
An engineering contractor also had no qualms: “If you break the rules, you don’t deserve to live with the rest of us.”
Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, sat at the table flanked by his defense lawyers. He was dressed in a dark blazer and blue shirt. His black hair and beard were trimmed. He often slumped in his chair or hid part of his face with one hand. Sometimes he fidgeted with a pen or wrote on a yellow legal pad.
Judge O’Toole, with wire-rim glasses and silver hair, sat at a long table moved into the center of the courtroom with prosecutors and defense lawyers. He issued an order banning the public and the press from the courtroom during the jury questioning process. More than 90% of the court files remain sealed, largely to prevent details about the case from tainting potential jurors. The judge did, however, permit a sketch artist to sit inside and draw Tsarnaev.
The public and press were allowed to watch the proceedings in vacant courtrooms with video feeds. But the feeds — which sometimes broke down — never showed the faces of prospective jurors, nor were their names given.
O’Toole had hoped to question 40 juror candidates a day, from a pool of 1,350 candidates, before impaneling 12 jurors and six alternates. But the pace quickly slowed, and they got through only 20 on Thursday.
The initial questioning underscored the challenges the judge faces in finding unbiased jurors.
A disabled limo driver said he believed the war on terrorism was “overblown and exaggerated, the way the news grabs onto it and tries to inflame us.”
The software engineer added that he thought violent jihadists should not be called terrorists: “They’re just criminals, that’s all.”