WASHINGTON (AP) — The focus of the Boston Marathon bombing trial figures to be as much on what punishment Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could face as on his responsibility for the attack.
With testimony expected to start later this month, the Justice Department has given no indication it is open to any proposal from the defence to spare Tsarnaev’s life, pushing instead toward a trial that could result in a death sentence for the 21-year-old defendant.
In a deadly terror case that killed three people, including a child, and jolted the city, there may be little incentive for prosecutors who believe they have incontrovertible evidence to negotiate away their ability to seek the maximum penalty possible.
“There would be now, in my judgment, no reason for the government to reverse course and not let 12 citizens decide if the death penalty is appropriate,” said Larry Mackey, a former Justice Department prosecutor involved in the case of Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001.
The prospect of a death sentence, a rare punishment in the federal system, raises the stakes of a trial that will revisit in gory detail the 2013 attack that also injured more than 260 people.
Should the jury find Tsarnaev guilty, it would then decide in a separate penalty phase whether he should be sentenced to death. Jury selection is underway and the judge has said he hopes to begin testimony on January 26.
Only three federal inmates, including McVeigh, have been put to death since 2001.
Recent bungled executions at the state level have placed the practice under scrutiny, with President Barack Obama directing the Justice Department last year to investigate how the death penalty is applied across the US.
Despite his own personal reservations about the death penalty, Attorney General Eric Holder says the government is committed to seeking that punishment for Tsarnaev.
Prosecutors have cited factors including a “lack of remorse”, the evident premeditation involved in the attack and allegations that Tsarnaev also killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer after the bombing at the marathon finish line that left an 8-year-old boy dead.
“The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision,” Holder said in a statement last January.