Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared in U.S. court in Boston on Thursday for the first time in a year and a half as a federal judge held a final hearing to discuss last-minute issues before the trial gets underway Jan. 5.
The judge, George O’Toole Jr., did not issue any rulings during the brief hearing and signaled he would decide later on a pending request from defense lawyers seeking again to have the case moved out of Boston. They argue that negative publicity and community outrage makes it nearly impossible to get a fair trial there.
Three people were killed and more than 260 others injured when twin pressure-cooker bombs were ignited near the finish line of the marathon in April 2013.
The defense also wants a formal hearing to investigate their complaints that the government has selectively leaked damaging information about their client. Among those complaints are reports by the Tribune/Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau about a Ruger gun used by Tsarnaev’s brother that federal agents have traced to a drug ring in the Portland, Maine, area.
Tsarnaev, 21, said little at the hearing. He was dressed in a dark sweater and shirt, his hair long, curly and tousled. According to the Boston Globe, he merely offered yes and no answers to questions from the judge, and stated he was satisfied with the work of his lawyers.
Defense lawyers and government prosecutors also discussed jury questionnaires and other trial-related arrangements. Security was tight around the courthouse on the Boston waterfront as Tsarnaev arrived and during the 25-minute session.
At the end of the hearing, the mother-in-law of a Tsarnaev friend who was shot to death by an FBI agent in Florida shouted out her support for the defendant, according to ABC News.
Elena Teyer, whose son-in-law Ibragim Todashev was killed in Florida after allegedly attacking the FBI agent during an interview, said she told Tsarnaev in Russian: “We prayed for you. Be strong, my son. We know you are innocent.”
Some 1,200 potential jurors will be called to the courthouse, and jury selection could last a month. The trial then could take another two months. The government is seeking the death penalty.
There were no outward signs of a plea agreement, which some expect might be reached soon.
For the defense, a plea could help Tsarnaev avoid the death penalty and instead be sentenced to life in prison with no parole.
The government may also want to avoid a trial, which could renew questions about why federal agents did not more closely watch Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, after Tamerlan returned to the Boston area from a trip to Chechnya, where he allegedly met with terrorist groups. Russian intelligence officials had alerted the U.S. about the trip and asked for more information about Tamerlan.
Details about the case have largely been kept confidential. About 90% of court filings, exhibits and judicial orders remain sealed, making it virtually impossible to determine which side — the defense or the government — has prevailed in nearly two years of pre-trial skirmishes, and which side would best benefit from a plea deal.
From the bench Thursday, the judge, who has routinely approved the sealed filings, said he would like to have more information be made public but that much of it must remain secret, including proposed witness lists for the trial.
Two hours after the hearing, the judge from his chambers issued a series of new sealed orders and accepted several new sealed motions and sealed exhibits in the case file.