Marathon bombing trial begins this week with jury selection

The much-anticipated trial of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began in federal court Monday, with about 400 of over 1,200 potential jurors showing up to complete a preliminary questionnaire. The jurors got a first sight of Tsarnaev and his attorneys, along with the federal prosecution team, who are preparing for a trial that is expected to take months and could end in the death penalty.

Opening statements are projected to be delivered on Jan. 26, and the trial will likely continue for three to four months. A sentencing phase of the trial will follow if Tsarnaev is convicted.

The trial, which has captured national attention, carries particular significance for the MIT community, which lost police officer Sean Collier in a shooting allegedly carried out by Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A memorial is now being built in Collier’s honor near the Stata Center and the David H. Koch Institute for Cancer, and is expected to be completed this April.

Tsarnaev is indicted on 30 counts in the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013 and the subsequent shootings that, in total, left Tamerlan and four others dead and over 250 injured.

The Jan. 5 opening of the trial comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the defense team and Judge George O’Toole over requests by the defense to postpone and move the location of the trial.

Tsarnaev’s attorneys repeatedly filed motions to push back the start of the trial so that they would have time to pore over all of the evidence being provided by federal prosecutors. They also requested to relocate the trial away from Boston, citing fears that sensational media and “great local prejudice will prevent a fair trial by an impartial jury,” according to the motion.

Even after O’Toole denied the motions, the defense’s requests kept coming, including as late as last Wednesday, when they were presented to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for reconsideration. The higher appellate court, however, said that it would not intervene.

“The court has confidence that a sufficient number of qualified, impartial jurors will be identified and ultimately sworn as jurors,” wrote O’Toole in a ruling, according to the Boston Globe.

With the appellate court’s go-ahead, the jury selection process began Monday in the first two of six sessions, as potential jurors heard remarks from O’Toole before completing questionnaires. O’Toole began with an overview of the history and significance of trial by jury before briefly mentioning the charges against Tsarnaev.

O’Toole noted that this case differs from many other criminal cases since the prosecution is pursuing the death penalty. If Tsarnaev is convicted, it will be the jury’s responsibility to decide whether Tsarnaev will receive capital punishment or life in prison. Ordinarily, the sentence in a criminal case is determined by the judge.

“I think that this case is really about the death penalty,” said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “It appears there’s overwhelming evidence that Tsarnaev committed his crimes, so the entire case will boil down to whether or not the jury will spare him his life.”

O’Toole warned the prospective jurors not to communicate with anyone about the case, including family and friends, until they have been excused.

“There has been a great deal of publicity of the case, and there will continue to be,” said O’Toole. Although he said that jurors’ contact with past media coverage does not necessarily exclude them from the jury, he ordered them to no longer read, watch, or listen to any reports of the case in the media. They are also forbidden from doing online research on the case.

Tsarnaev was seated in the assembly hall on Monday and stood briefly upon being introduced by O’Toole and after receiving a gentle nudge from Judy Clarke, one of his attorneys. Clarke was joined by the rest of the defense team: David Bruck, Miriam Conrad, William Fick, and Timothy Watkins.

The federal prosecutors Aloke Chakravarty, Nadine Pellegrini, William Weinreb, also rose upon being introduced. Attorney Steven Mellin, representing the U.S., however, was not present.

Tsarnaev sat dressed in a dark sweater and khaki pants, often touching his face and fixing his collar as O’Toole addressed the potential jurors. At one point in the afternoon, he was seen picking at his facial hair.

After the jurors’ questionnaires have been completed over the next three days, attorneys will review the responses and recall a portion of the jurors to continue with the second round of individual questioning, which will begin next week. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be chosen to serve for the duration of the trial.

Possible grounds for exclusion from the jury include personal connections to any victims of the bombing or any witnesses in the trial. Jurors were given a list of witnesses slated to appear and asked to identify anyone they knew.

The defense and prosecution each have 20 peremptory challenges that they can use to strike out a potential juror without giving reason. A motion by the defendant to allow him 10 additional peremptory challenges, as a remedy for extensive pretrial publicity, was denied by the judge last month. However, both sides will have an unlimited number of challenges for cause, in which they may prove to the judge that a juror cannot be fair or impartial.

Many people were affected by the unprecedented lockdown of Boston and surrounding areas after the bombings. Residents in the area were ordered to shelter in place, and all public transit services, in addition to many schools and businesses, were closed. The extent of the effects on the community mean that many of the prospective jurors have likely been directly or indirectly affected by the bombing and its aftermath.

It is not yet clear how long the jury selection process will drag on. Medwed, the law professor, told The Tech in an interview that “many people may be dismissed because of their connection to the tragedy, and so it could take weeks — maybe up to a month or more — to choose 12 jurors and six alternates that are acceptable to both sides.”