From the moment US prosecutors stand up on Wednesday and begin their case against accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, their minds and those of their defence counterparts will be focused on just one thing: The death penalty.
Tsarnaev, 21, is accused of killing three people and injuring 264 with a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs left at the race’s crowded finish line on April 15, 2013, in the largest mass-casualty attack on US soil since September 11, 2001.
The ethnic Chechen, who moved to the US from Russia with his family a decade before the attack, could be sentenced to death if he is convicted of charges that also include the fatal shooting of a police officer three days later as he tried to flee the city.
“The bottom line is you’re not going to get a ‘not guilty’ [verdict] in this case,” said Jules Epstein, a Widener University School of Law professor who has represented defendants in federal and Pennsylvania death penalty cases.
“I don’t think the defense is arguing that. So every move is with an eye on the end game and that is avoiding death.”
Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to all charges and his attorneys have offered little detail on their case, with the bulk of both prosecution and defense filings under seal in Boston federal court. However, legal experts said the defence will likely try to show that his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, an amateur boxer who died following a gun battle with police as the pair tried to flee Boston, was the driving force behind the attack.
Showing he was heavily influenced by his brother could be a mitigating factor that would persuade a jury to sentence Tsarnaev to life in prison rather than death, legal experts said. For prosecutors, the challenge is to show that he was fully responsible for actions while not making any errors that could result in a guilty verdict or death sentence being overturned on appeal.
“With someone who is so young, the strategy would be to try to humanise him in front of the jury,” said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University School of Law professor who specialises in the capital punishment.
“In a death penalty case... you try to humanise him as much as possible to make it so the jury empathises with him.”
Finding the jury has been an arduous process, as eligible jurors needed to be willing to consider imposing the death penalty, and not have too personal a connection to the event.
The faces of Tsarnaev and his older brother as seen on a surveillance video walking towards the site of the blasts carrying backpacks that prosecutors contend held the bombs that are burned into the memory of Boston-area residents.
Tsarnaev was found hiding in a drydocked boat, where he had written a note suggesting the attack was an act of retribution for US military involvement in Muslim-dominated countries.
When the trial opens, prosecutors will be seeking to show evidence that Tsarnaev understood his actions and played an active role in planning and building the bombs that ripped through the crowd, tearing the legs off 16 people and killing spectators as young as 10.
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