Sentenced to Death, Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Faces Years of Appeals

Federal government has only rarely carried out executions in recent years

Now that a jury has sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, he will likely face decades in prison first. The U.S. government has executed only three criminals since the federal death penalty was reinstated 27 years ago.

The jury reached a unanimous decision Friday afternoon. Tsarnaev will remain in custody until he is formally sentenced by the judge, NBC News reported.

At that time, the bombings victims will be allowed to make statements and Tsarnaev will be given the chance to speak.

Tsarnaev, who at the beginning of April was found guilty of 30 charges related to the attack, joins nearly 60 other inmates on federal death row. Fifty-nine prisoners are awaiting a review of their cases, and two others are to be retried or re-sentenced after their verdicts were reversed on appeal, according to figures compiled by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.

That compares to about 3,000 on death row in states across the country.

The penalty phase of the trial began on April 21, when Tsarnaev's defense team began arguing for a life sentence instead of a death penalty.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was one of the last federal prisoners to be executed. He was killed by lethal injection in 2001, four years after he was found guilty of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. His execution came quicker than some because he stopped appealing his death sentence.

Executed that same year was Juan Raul Garza, a drug kingpin who ordered the murder of colleagues. Two years later, Louis Jones Jr., a Gulf War veteran who raped and killed a woman, was put to death. Garza and Jones were executed eight years after they were convicted.

Federal cases can reach the end of their reviews faster than state ones, though more than half of federal prisoners have been waiting for more than 10 years for their reviews to be heard; some for 20 years.

With Tsarnaev sentenced to death for the attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260, his case could face two rounds of reviews.

A direct appeal would be decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and would be limited to issues that have already been raised. His lawyers, for example, repeatedly requested that the trial be moved out of Boston, but were rebuffed by the judge. Other issues that could be contested: objections made during jury selection, rulings that permitted evidence his lawyers thought more inflammatory than probative, or questions that were not permitted during cross examination.

If the appeal is denied, the U.S. Supreme Court is not required to review the case, but that step would be expected.

The second round, the habeas corpus petition, would involve only issues that have not already been presented, such as claims that Tsarnaev received ineffective representation or that the government withheld evidence that should have been turned over to the defense.

“What that might look like here is anybody’s guess,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

But if such claims are made, they would likely concern documents showing what the government knew about the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, who was killed during a shoot-out with police. 

While acknowledging the horror and grief the brothers caused, Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison not death because it was Tamerlan who conceived of leaving bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, who turned fanatical and became obsessed with jihad.

Tsarnaev's defense started presenting its case as a poll for The Boston Globe found that only 15 percent of people in Boston and 19 percent in Massachusetts favored the death penalty for him.

Among those who wanted Tsarnaev imprisoned for life were the parents of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard.

"We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring," the parents, Bill and Denise Richard, wrote in The Boston Globe.

The sister of the MIT police officer shot and killed by the brothers, Sean Collier, also opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev. Jennifer Lemmerman wrote on Facebook that executing him would not bring her peace, the Globe reported.

Massachusetts abolished its state death penalty in 1984, one of 18 states to have done so. The last prisoners were executed there nearly 40 years earlier by electric chair.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws in 1972, the federal death penalty was also suspended. But it was reintroduced in 1988, and since then 74 defendants have been sentenced to death.

Defending them comes at a price. A report from the federal courts found in 2010 that the median cost of cases that went to trial was $465,602.

All executions now take place at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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