Supreme Court reinstates death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It was a 6-3 decision, but how soon the sentence will be carried out is unclear.

March 4, 2022, 2:26 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who attacked the 2013 Boston Marathon in plot hatched with his older brother Tamerlan, killing three and injuring more than 200.

It was a 6-3 decision, with the opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes. The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one," Thomas wrote in the decision, reversing the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2020 that Tsarnaev deserved a new sentencing.

At issue in the case was whether the sentencing process was effectively tainted by a trial court judge, who declined to question each juror about the content and extent of his or her media consumption regarding the bombings and prevented Tsarnaev from presenting hearsay evidence of alleged triple murder committed by his brother in 2011.

Tsarnaev argued exclusion of the evidence hindered his argument for leniency based on the theory that Tamerlan had a history of orchestrating violent acts and "radicalized" his younger brother. The federal appeals court agreed, concluding the trial judge had abused his discretion.

But Thomas, writing for the majority, said the trial judge exercised "reasonable" judgment.

"Dzhokar sought to divert the sentencing jury's attention to a triple homicide that Tamerlan allegedly committed years prior, though there was no allegation Dzhokar had any role in that crime. Nor was there any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involves were dead," Thomas wrote.

Of the jury questioning, Thomas dismissed concerns of potentially overlooked bias, concluding, "The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to a trial by an impartial jury. The right to an impartial jury does not require ignorance."

Despite the ruling, it is not known if or when Tsarnaev's sentence might be carried out. The Biden administration halted all federal executions in July 2021 to allow for a review of Justice Department protocols. The Department did not immediately respond to ABC's request for comment.

U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins praised the court's decision but noted other legal issues remain pending in other courts.

"Legal rulings don't erase trauma and pain," Rollins said in a statement. "Our focus today, and always, is on the hundreds of families that were deeply impacted and traumatized by this horrific act of domestic terrorism."

Breyer, in a dissent joined by Kagan and Sotomayor, said the appeals court exercised proper "supervisory authority" over the trial judge and that Tsarnaev should have been allowed to introduce evidence about his older brother's alleged crimes.

"Dzokhar conceded his guilt. The only issue was whether he deserved to die," Breyer wrote. "Tellingly, the jury's nuanced verdict reflected close attention to the relationship between the brothers... And it would have taken only one juror's change of mind to have produced a sentence other than death, even if a severe one."