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Biden administration urges Supreme Court to reinstate death sentences for Boston Marathon bomber

Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who lost a part of her left leg at the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013
Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroo... 03:08

Washington — The Justice Department is urging the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty sentences for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that were invalidated by a lower court last year.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court on Monday in the dispute between the federal government and Tsarnaev, Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong to vacate the capital sentences recommended by a federal jury "in one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our nation's history" and called for the high court to reverse the lower court's decision.

"[T]he jury carefully considered each of respondent's crimes and determined that capital punishment was warranted for the horrors that he personally inflicted — setting down a shrapnel bomb in a crowd and detonating it, killing a child and a promising young student, and consigning several others 'to a lifetime of unimaginable suffering,'" Prelogar wrote in the filing. "That determination by 12 conscientious jurors deserves respect and reinstatement by this court."

The Supreme Court in March agreed to hear the case involving Tsarnaev after a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit tossed out his capital sentences over issues with jurors' pretrial media exposure. While the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump asked the justices to review the ruling in October and Attorney General William Barr said federal prosecutors would continue to pursue the death penalty for Tsarnaev, it was unclear whether that remained the position of the Justice Department under President Biden, who is opposed to the death penalty. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in March that Mr. Biden "has grave concerns" about capital punishment, but did not have any updates on the administration's death penalty policy. 

Tsarnaev was convicted in 2015 for his role in the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which left three dead and scores more wounded. Tsarnaev's attorneys admitted he and his older brother, Tamerlan, detonated two homemade bombs near the race's finish line, but said it was Tamerlan Tsarnaev who was the mastermind of the attack.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police who pursued the brothers as they attempted to flee the state in the days following the bombing. Tsarnaev, meanwhile, was arrested after he was found hiding in a boat behind a home in Watertown, Massachusetts. 

The 27-year-old was indicted by a federal grand jury on 30 counts and he was convicted of all offenses for his role in the deadly terror attack. A jury recommended and the district court imposed the death penalty on six of 17 capital counts.

But Tsarnaev appealed his convictions. The 1st Circuit upheld all but three, though it invalidated his capital sentences and ordered a new sentencing trial.

The appeals court said the district judge presiding over Tsarnaev's trial erred by rejecting requests to ask prospective jurors about their pretrial media coverage and by excluding evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was allegedly involved in murders years before the bombing. That involvement, Tsarnaev's lawyers argued, would've bolstered their central theory that he acted under his older brother's influence.

But the Justice Department argued to the Supreme Court that any error in the district court's handling of evidence about the earlier crimes by Tamerlan Tsarnaev was "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."

"The record definitively demonstrates that respondent was eager to commit his crimes, was untroubled at having ended two lives and devastated many others, and remained proud of his actions even after he had run Tamerlan over and was hiding out alone," Prelogar wrote. 

The U.S. also argued that a ruling from the Supreme Court upholding the lower court's decision, thereby requiring new sentencing proceedings, would be a mistake and come "at the significant cost" of requiring victims of the bombing to return to court and reshare their experiences.

"[I]t would entail selecting a new jury through an unnecessarily onerous process that promises to be even longer and more burdensome — but no more effective — than the original. Nothing justifies that result," the Justice Department wrote.

The Supreme Court will hear the case deciding Tsarnaev's fate in its next term, which begins in the fall.

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