Picking Boston Marathon bombing jury looms as challenge

Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (L) is shown in a courtroom sketch next to Judge George O'Toole on the first day of jury selection at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts January 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jane Flavell Collins
By Scott Malone

By Scott Malone BOSTON (Reuters) - The challenge of seating a jury to hear the Boston Marathon bombing trial became clear on Thursday as candidates included a man whose roommates had urged him to vote for execution and a theologian worried such a vote would end his career. U.S. District Judge George O'Toole worked his way through a few dozen people as he sought to build a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates to determine whether 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was guilty of killing three people and injuring 264 in the attack and, if so, whether he deserves the death penalty. To be eligible, potential jurors must be willing to consider either execution or life in prison without parole if Tsarnaev is convicted of the largest mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The first candidate called, a young man who works in advertising, said he had already concluded Tsarnaev was guilty. "I live with several other males my age, a very testosterone-driven household, they think it's very cool that I would get to sentence him to death," the man said. Another candidate, a professor of Catholic theology, said he could vote for the death penalty only if the U.S. prison system had physically collapsed. "Should the walls come down and we needed to protect innocent lives, then one could enforce the death penalty," said the man, who added such a vote would likely prevent him from getting tenure. SECOND ROUND The candidates who reported to U.S. District Court in Boston on Thursday had already made it through last week's first round of screening, which saw 1,350 potential jurors fill out questionnaires about their ties to the case and views on the death penalty. Even with that, O'Toole heard from a man whose wife was a nurse who tended to the wounded after the April 15, 2013, attack and several people whose opposition to the death penalty was absolute. "The questionnaire was designed to filter out some folks, real extreme views on both sides," said lawyer Walter Prince, a former federal prosecutor not involved in the case. "Now you're finding out even more that the questionnaire didn't catch. Tsarnaev, who appeared in court on Thursday wearing a sport jacket and collared shirt, more formally dressed than in last week's appearances, and had trimmed his hair, is also charged with fatally shooting a university police officer three days after the bombing. He has pleaded not guilty. Defense attorney David Bruck complained that O'Toole was not asking jurors specifically if they would be able to vote for life in prison if they found Tsarnaev guilty of the terrorism charges. "It doesn't matter whether the juror might vote for life in an unintentional killing because that's not what we're dealing with," Bruck said. "We really don't think we’re going to have a fair jury unless they're asked." O'Toole rejected the request. "The jurors know that this is about a bombing," said O'Toole, who is asking all the questions. "They have those specifics already in their minds." (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)