Death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brings relief to many in Boston

A courtroom sketch from March shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, second from left, with defense attorneys, from left, William Fick, Judy Clarke and David Bruck.

A courtroom sketch from March shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, second from left, with defense attorneys, from left, William Fick, Judy Clarke and David Bruck.

(Jane Flavell Collins / Associated Press)

Convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev must pay with his life for the suffering he unleashed at the race finish line two years ago, a federal jury decided Friday, delivering a major victory to the government in the biggest U.S. terrorism prosecution of the post-Sept. 11 era.

After 16 hours of deliberations over three days, the jury accepted the government call to impose the death penalty rather than life in prison without the possibility of parole, the only other option.

The decision is likely to fuel the debate over whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is the harsher sentence for terrorists and religious extremists who frequently express a desire to die as a martyr.


Many victims welcomed the outcome, saying it would bring healing to a city still coping with the tragedy. “I have to watch my two sons put their legs on every morning,” said Liz Norden, whose sons lost limbs. “So I’m grateful.”

William Evans, the Boston police commissioner, said that because of Massachusetts’ reputation as a liberal, anti-death-penalty state, this result will carry a strong message. “They’re not going to blow up our marathon,” he said. “They’re not going to blow up our city.”

Tsarnaev stood silently as the court clerk read the verdict, as he had throughout the trial, showing no emotion. Several jurors quietly cried.

But the seven-woman, five-man jury was unswayed by the defense’s portrayal of Tsarnaev, 21, as a once-shy boy who emigrated from Russia and became a troubled, failing U.S. college student.

They rejected the key defense claim that he was controlled by his radicalized older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom the lawyers blamed for hatching the plot to place two pressure-cooker bombs, hidden in backpacks, on crowded Boylston Street.

Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who by law cannot change the jury’s decision, said he would formally impose the sentence of death at a future hearing.


Tsarnaev has never spoken publicly or shown remorse in the courtroom. His formal sentencing will be his last opportunity to offer some word to the families of the three people killed and more than 260 others injured in the April 15, 2013, bombings, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11.

The jury voted in favor of the death penalty only for the two people killed by the bomb placed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, not for a third victim killed by Tamerlan’s device or for the murder of an MIT police officer, who appeared to have been shot by the older brother during the manhunt that followed. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed days after the bombing in a police shootout.

The sentence marks a singular achievement for federal prosecutors, who have repeatedly failed in recent years to persuade jurors to impose the death penalty in U.S. terrorism cases with international ties, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York and the case against Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker.

“The ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime, and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families,” said U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch.

Lead prosecutor William D. Weinreb said he could not understand why the young man never showed remorse. “Nobody can see into another person’s mind,” Weinreb said

The last time the federal government won a death sentence in a major terrorism case was in 1997, when Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to die for the Oklahoma City bombing. He was executed on June 11, 2001, exactly three months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Tsarnaev trial may renew pressure to end the military tribunals at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Obama administration wants to close the military prison there and bring terrorism defendants, including the suspected Sept. 11 conspirators, to U.S. civilian courts.

White House officials say U.S. courts are better able to quickly handle high-profile terrorism cases. In Guantanamo, for example, the case against alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others has been bogged down for more than 10 years, with no trial date in sight. The Tsarnaev sentence suggests that American jurors are not reluctant to impose harsh justice.

But critics, including many lawmakers, worry that foreign terrorists will manipulate the U.S. justice system if brought here for trial.

Tsarnaev’s execution will not come quickly. His case will probably be held up with lengthy, mandatory appeals. The last federal execution was in 2003.

The death sentence was bittersweet for many Bostonians. While the community was united in celebrating Tsarnaev’s conviction last month, displaying “Boston Strong” banners around the city, it was more divided over the proper punishment. Capital punishment is not allowed in Massachusetts state courts, and the question over Tsarnaev’s fate divided citizens, leaders and even victims. The parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest of the bombing victims, publicly endorsed a life sentence.

Some argued that being locked away in prison for the rest of his life would be a harsher punishment for the young man. But the government pressed the jury for the toughest possible sentence.

Many victims praised the jury’s decision. Outside the courtroom Friday, car horns blared in jubilation.

“I’m thrilled,” said Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost a leg.

Karen Brassard, who was badly wounded by shrapnel, said, “There’s nothing happy about having to take someone’s life. But I do think this was the just conclusion.”

Michael Ward, an off-duty firefighter who treated victims, reacted more angrily: “He’s going to go to hell. And he’s going to get there quickly.”

Lead defense lawyer Judy Clarke declined to comment. Before this case, she had never lost a client to death row, even after representing some of the nation’s most notorious killers, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Jared Loughner, who shot then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived, and killed six other people at a 2011 public gathering in Tucson.

Before the trial, Tsarnaev’s attorneys had fought vigorously to have the proceeding moved outside Boston, arguing their client could not receive a fair hearing in the traumatized community.

The two-month trial included more than 150 witnesses, bringing the horrors of terrorism into a U.S. courtroom. Prosecutors showed graphic videos of the dead and dying. Survivors with missing limbs offered emotional testimony.

But the trial was also anticlimactic in some ways. Though Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty, the defense acknowledged in its opening statement that he participated in the bombing, making a guilty verdict in the first phase a foregone conclusion.

Instead, the defense focused its entire case on trying to save Tsarnaev from the death penalty by humanizing him. But he never took the stand to explain his actions. In fact, his behavior during the trial — showing no emotion, avoiding eye contact with victims or jurors, and often appearing bored and detached — made him an enigma.

His only emotional break came when he briefly teared up after a Russian aunt broke down as she testified.

Becki Norris, who was Tsarnaev’s middle school principal and testified on his behalf, said Friday on Twitter: “My heart is broken for the boy I knew, and for our justice system.”

Tsarnaev’s motive appeared to be revenge against what he considered U.S. mistreatment of Muslims around the world.

Hiding in a backyard boat in suburban Boston before his capture, he scrawled notes on the hull accusing the U.S. government of “killing our innocent civilians. … I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.” He expressed a desire to die as a martyr, as he thought his older brother had.

Prosecutors also showed videos of Tsarnaev 20 minutes after the explosions, casually buying milk at a market. In the next few days, he tweeted such messages as “aint no love in the city” and “I’m a stress free kind of guy” — all signs that he was untouched by the death and injury he had helped leave behind, prosecutors argued. The government also showed the jury a picture of him flipping his middle finger at a jail cell camera, which they said proved he was unrepentant.

Anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, the defense team’s final witness, offered the only evidence of what might be going through Tsarnaev’s mind. She said he told her recently that the victims did not “deserve” to suffer as they did.

But most of the jurors dismissed her testimony, concluding that Tsarnaev had shown no remorse.

Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT