The Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon Bomber now-28-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man found guilty of setting off pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people including an 8-year-old boy, and injuring more than 260 people. 

The justices sided with the U.S. government 6-3 to reverse a 2020 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and to reinstate the district court’s earlier ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, penned the dissent. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October of 2021, in which the U.S. government — despite President Joe Biden’s purported stance on the death penalty — asked the justices to uphold the “sound judgment of 12 of respondent’s peers that he warrants capital punishment.” Tsarnaev’s attorney Ginger Anders contended that the First Circuit was correct in reversing the district court’s decision because the district judge excluded a question about pre-trial media consumption from the juror questionnaire and excluded evidence from the unsolved Waltham murders.

The conservative-leaning majority ultimately disagreed with Anders’ argument, Thomas writing that Tsarnaev received a fair trial before an impartial jury.

“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes. The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is reversed,” Thomas explained.

For background, a heavily redacted federal affidavit was unsealed in 2019 during Tsarnaev’s appeal of his death sentence, revealing details of 2011 murders allegedly involving his brother Tamerlan and his friend Ibragim Todashev.

Todashev, who was reportedly shot multiple times by the FBI during a 2013 interview, confessed that he and Tamerlan participated in the 2011 “Waltham murders,” and both men “took several thousand dollars from the residence and split the money,” according to the Boston Herald.

On September 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 Terror Attacks, the men allegedly bound, beat, and slit the throats of Raphael Teken, 37, Erik Weissman, 31, and Brendan Mess, 25. They also reportedly left the men covered in marijuana and attempted to scrub the crime scene of fingerprints.

Tsarnaev’s attorney argued that the district court violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) by excluding “reliable evidence” that “went to the heart of Dzhokhar’s mitigation case.” Anders alleged that the Waltham murders show how Tsarnaev’s older brother Tamerlan, who died shortly after the bombing, had a propensity for violence and ultimately ended up playing a role in radicalizing Tsarnaev and manipulating him into participating in the Boston bombings. They also alleged Tamerlan was the main planner of the attack.

In contrast, the U.S. solicitor general argued that the court of appeals improperly vacated the capital sentence recommended by the jury in “one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our Nation’s history.”

The United States argued that pretrial publicity does not, as a rule, hinder a jury from being impartial and that the court engaged in a jury selection process that the Supreme Court has upheld in other notable cases. As for the exclusion of evidence pertaining to the unsolved Waltham murders, the U.S. waged the murders were an entirely different crime with seemingly different motives, and both parties reportedly involved are dead. To have battled over the details of the separate crimes in court “was exceedingly unlikely to be productive” when discussing Tsarnaev’s role in the Boston bombings, the briefing argues.

“In sum, the court’s jury selection process was both eminently reasonable and wholly consistent with this Court’s precedents. The Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise,” Thomas wrote in his opinion. “…The Court of Appeals’ second reason for vacating Dzhokhar’s capital sentences—that the District Court erred in excluding from the sentencing proceedings evidence of the Waltham murders—fares no better.”

He continued:

FDPA proceedings are not evidentiary free-for-alls. The district court may exclude information under the FDPA “if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury.

…That conclusion was reasonable and not an abuse of the District Court’s discretion. Dzhokhar sought to divert the sentencing jury’s attention to a triple homicide that Tamerlan allegedly committed years prior, though there was no allegation that Dzhokhar had any role in that crime. Nor was there any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involved were dead.

“Dzhokhar and the dissent offer several counterarguments, none of which is convincing,” Thomas further noted.

Justice Breyer, in his dissent, said he thinks the district court “should have allowed Dzhokhar to introduce the [Waltham murders] evidence.”

“Three courts including this Court have now examined this record with care. Why? Why are appellate courts so deeply involved in what is, after all, a trial-based evidentiary matter?” Breyer queried. “The reason, in my view, lies in part in the nature of the underlying proceeding. It is a death penalty proceeding. And where death is at stake, the courts (and Congress) believe that particular judicial care is required. ”

Two people injured in the bombing took to Twitter on Friday to praise the outcome of the case.

“Congratulations to all who worked tirelessly for justice,” Adrianne Haslet wrote. Haslet is a professional ballroom dancer who lost a leg in the bombing.

Massachusetts transit police officer Dic Donohue, who was severely wounded in a firefight with the Tsarnaev brothers, also commented favorably on the outcome.

“Bottom line: He can’t kill anyone else,” Donohue said.

The case is United States v. TsarnaevNo. 20-443 in the Supreme Court of the United States.

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