The First Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled oral arguments next Thursday, February 19th, to consider Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s request to move his death penalty trial out of Boston. United States District Court Judge George A. O’Toole has denied three defense motions to move the trial and that prompted the defense to go to the appellate court. Meanwhile, jury selection will continue.
The New York Times reports,
In making their requests to move the trial, defense lawyers had cited the attitudes of prospective jurors. They said that of the 1,373 prospective jurors who filled out questionnaires, 68 percent said they already believed Mr. Tsarnaev was guilty and 69 percent had said they had a personal connection to the case.
They also cited the outpouring of emotion in Boston on Jan. 28 when a man shoveled off the marathon finish line in the midst of a blizzard. The Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the marathon, issued a statement saying that the act “proves that — in Boston — everyone owns the marathon.”
The defense seized on this as evidence of bias. “Such remarkable and enduring displays of public solidarity in the wake of the Marathon bombings are laudable,” the defense wrote. “But jurors drawn from the community where ‘everyone owns the Marathon’ cannot be dispassionate and impartial.”
Judge O’Toole and the lawyers have individually questioned 173 potential jurors so far in an attempt to create a pool of 60 – 70 potential jurors who have been passed for cause by both sides (i.e., people who claim that they can put aside what they know about the case and any opinions they may have formed about Tsarnaev’s guilt and impartially decide the case solely on the basis of the evidence introduced in court and the jury instructions). Judge O’Toole wants a pool that large before the lawyers exercise their peremptory challenges. Unlike challenges for cause that must be supported by a reason why the potential juror cannot be fair and impartial, peremptory challenges do not require a reason. Each side has 20 peremptory challenges, plus 3 for the 6 alternates. If both sides exercise their full complement of peremptory challenges, 46 potential jurors could be disqualified. To be on the safe side, the pool should consist of 64 potential jurors. They are not there yet, despite a month of jury selection and that demonstrates how tainted the potential jurors are by the extensive pretrial publicity and their feelings about the case.
In addition, a large percentage of the potential jurors would either automatically impose the death penalty if Tsarnaev is convicted or automatically refuse to impose it because they are opposed to it. Only people who can agree to balance evidence in aggravation against evidence in mitigation can serve on the jury. This is called the death qualification process.
I do not believe it’s possible to select a fair and impartial death qualified jury in Boston and I would grant the defense motion for a change of venue, if I were the judge. Judge O’Toole disagrees. Now a three-judge panel will decide whether to keep it in Boston or move it to another location.