Jury selection begins in trial of accused Boston bomber Tsarnaev

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is shown in a courtroom sketch during a pre-trial hearing at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts December 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Jane Collins)

BOSTON—The sidewalk, once charred and stained with blood, was long ago replaced with fresh concrete. The blasted-out storefronts have been rebuilt. Along Boylston Street, one of the busiest shopping stretches in town, the only physical reminder of the two bombs detonated here during the April 2013 Boston Marathon is a small, wooden sign leaning against a tree near the site of the first blast bearing the names of those killed.

“We will never forget,” it reads.

Not that people here ever could. Nearly two years after the attacks, which paralyzed the city and shocked the world, many in Boston are still recovering from the bombs which killed three people and injured nearly 300, including 16 who lost limbs. Now the city is preparing to relive the gruesome horror all over again.

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Jury selection began Monday for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old surviving suspect in the attacks. He is accused of plotting and carrying out the twin bombings along with his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed during a confrontation with police four days after the attacks. The brothers are also accused of shooting and killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer while on the run from the authorities. Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, faces the death penalty if convicted.

Appearing in court Monday morning for only the second time in 18 months, Tsarnaev, with a short beard and shaggy hair, was seated in front of the first 200 of 1,200 prospective jurors in the case who quietly stared at the suspected bomber as presiding Judge George O'Toole explained the selection process.

O'Toole told the jurors the trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 26 and is expected to last three to four months. As he spoke, Tsarnaev, who was dressed in khaki pants and dark sweater, stared mostly at the table, looking up occasionally at the judge and out towards the prospective jurors. He could be seen drumming his fingers on his chair underneath the table.

A potential juror enters the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse as jury selection begins in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, January 5, 2015. Some 1,200 potential jurors reported to federal court in Boston beginning on Monday as selection begins for the trial of Tsarnaev, charged with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW)

The trial is expected to center on dueling narratives about Tsarnaev, who has been held in near solitary confinement at a federal medical prison for the nearly 21 months since he was captured hiding in a boat in the Boston suburbs, suffering severe gunshot wounds. Is he a heartless killer or a someone who acted under the influence of a domineering older brother?

Federal prosecutors have painted Tsarnaev as a cold-blooded terrorist who knew exactly what he was doing when he allegedly detonated the second of two bombs along Boylston Street. They say Tsarnaev left a note scrawled in the boat where he hid after the blasts. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians," the note read, according to his indictment. "We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.” Questioned in the hospital after he was apprehended, prosecutors say Tsarnaev confessed to the bombings and showed no remorse.

In court filings, the government has also hinted at other damning evidence tying Tsarnaev to the bombings—including forensic evidence from his dorm room at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the Tsarnaev family apartment in Cambridge, where the plot was allegedly hatched. Prosecutors are expected to present previously unseen surveillance video of Tsarnaev and his brother near the marathon's finish line. The footage reportedly shows Tsarnaev moments before the second blast dropping a backpack on the ground near Martin Richard, an 8-year-old Boston boy killed by the bomb. In a filing last month, the government told the defense it is prepared to present more than 700 witnesses and more than 1,600 pieces of evidence against the accused bomber.

Tsarnaev’s defense team, on the other hand, is expected to cast him as a malleable young man from a troubled family who came under the corrupting influence of his older brother Tamerlan. Recent court filings suggest they won’t argue the younger Tsarnaev didn’t participate in the bombings, but will paint Tamerlan as the mastermind.

Police officers stand outside the federal courthouse in Boston, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, for the first day of jury selection in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

That strategy has been no secret. For months, the defense team has tried repeatedly to gain access to any evidence the government has uncovered about Tamerlan Tsarnaev that might bolster this portrayal. The biggest fight has been over information that allegedly ties the elder brother to a still-unsolved triple slaying in 2011 in the Boston suburbs. According to court filings, an accomplice implicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the murders. The prosecution has shut down the defense team’s requests, arguing Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not the suspect on trial. Judge O’Toole has so far agreed.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, some in Boston have wondered why a trial is happening at all. Behind the scenes, Tsarnaev’s defense team has reportedly been making overtures to prosecutors seeking a plea deal that would allow their client to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. The attorney leading that effort is Judy Clarke, a former federal public defender who is known for taking on notorious defendants and saving them from execution. But so far, Clarke—whose clients have included Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and Jared Loughner, who pled guilty to killing six people in a 2009 assassination attempt on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—has been rebuffed by prosecutors unwilling to accept anything but the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

Clarke and other members of the Tsarnaev defense team have also pushed to move the trial out of Boston—arguing the city was so traumatized by the attacks that it will be hard to seat a fair jury. In addition, they have repeatedly asked to push back the trial’s start date, insisting they have not had adequate time to prepare a defense in the most high-profile federal death penalty case since Timothy McVeigh was ultimately sentenced to die for bombing an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. But O’Toole has denied their requests, and on Saturday, a federal appeals court declined to intervene.

In December, prosecutors gathered victims and relatives of those killed in the bombings at the federal courthouse in Boston to brace them for the upcoming trial. According to a relative of one of the victims, who declined to be named, the group was warned the evidence presented in the case would be “graphic,” “gruesome,” “hard to stomach,” and that it would include photos and video of the bomb blasts and aftermath. That has proven unsettling for many victims, who want justice but also worry about the trauma of reliving the excruciating details of April 15, 2013, especially in a trial that is expected to go on for months.

This combination of undated family photos shows, from left, Martin Richard, 8, Krystle Campbell, 29, and Lu Lingzi, a Boston University graduate student from China, all who were killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, in Boston. Jury selection for the trial of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, in federal court in Boston. (AP Photo/File)

Many of the bombing victims and their relatives are split on whether Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty if convicted—perhaps unsurprising in Massachusetts, a heavily Catholic state where most oppose the practice. The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in the state in 1982, though in rare cases officials have continued to pursue it under federal law. Tsarnaev is only the fifth defendant in Massachusetts to be charged with the federal death penalty, and out of the other four, just one was sentenced to death— Gary L. Sampson, who was convicted of carjacking and killing three people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 2001. But Sampson's sentence was later vacated amid problems with the jury. The government is currently trying to reinstate the sentence, and a new hearing is set for February--in the same courthouse where Tsarnaev's trial is being held.

A September 2013 Boston Globe survey found that 57 percent of Boston residents polled supported a life sentence without parole for Tsarnaev, compared to 33 percent who supported the death penalty. Even some of the victims have gone back and forth about Tsarnaev’s fate. Marc Fucarile, who lost his right leg in the bombing, initially came out strongly in support of the government’s decision to pursue a death sentence, but this week, he told the Boston Globe that he now supports a life sentence because death would let Tsarnaev off too easily.

But there are some who hope the trial could bring closure to the bombings, which are still shrouded in mystery. Nearly two years after the attacks, the public has gained little insight into how and why the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly committed such a terrible crime — or whether others knew about the plot or were involved. His defense team has not said if Tsarnaev, who has been banned from talking to anyone except his immediate family or legal team, will testify on his own behalf.

Tsarnaev is expected to appear before another group of prospective jurors Monday afternoon--followed by two more sessions Tuesday and another two Wednesday. Likely jurors were told they would be informed next week if they made the initial cut.

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