Opening statements in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be held next week, a court official announced Wednesday after the judge qualified enough prospective jurors to move on to the final stage of jury selection.
Early next week, Tsarnaev's lawyers and prosecutors will be allowed to eliminate 23 jurors each for strategic reasons. A final panel of 12 jurors and six alternates will then be seated for the trial.
Opening statements from both sides are expected on March 4, with testimony set to begin immediately afterward.
Jury selection began Jan. 5 and took much longer than Judge George O'Toole Jr. originally anticipated. The process was slowed by a series of powerful snowstorms that dumped several feet of snow on Boston.
It also was slowed by lengthy individual questioning by the judge, prosecutors and Tsarnaev's lawyers. Many prospective jurors said they already believe Tsarnaev is guilty and they could not be impartial. Others expressed a moral objection to the death penalty and said they could not impose it under any circumstances. Many described personal connections to the case that would make it difficult for them to be impartial.
Tsarnaev's lawyers have argued repeatedly that the trial should be moved out of Massachusetts. The case heads to the final stage of jury selection even as the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Tsarnaev's latest request to move the trial. The appeals court heard oral arguments last week but has not yet issued its ruling.
Testimony in the trial is set to begin nearly two years after twin bombs exploded near the marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.
Authorities allege Tsarnaev, then 19, and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, planned and carried out the attack. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died following a shootout with police days after the bombings.
The number of jurors who have qualified was not released by the court on Wednesday, but O'Toole said previously that once 70 people were chosen, prosecutors and Tsarnaev's lawyers will be allowed to use peremptory strikes to eliminate jurors they do not want on the panel.
Tsarnaev, now 21, could be executed if convicted. He faces 30 federal charges; 17 of them carry a possible sentence of death.
Much of the questioning during jury selection focused on whether potential panelists had formed an opinion on whether Tsarnaev was guilty and how they viewed the death penalty.
One man, a teacher who said he had earned a degree in international affairs at the University of London, indicated Wednesday he had once been steadfastly opposed to the death penalty but that his views had changed somewhat after the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
He said the shooting affected him deeply because it occurred within weeks of his becoming a father for the first time.
"I didn't know it was possible to love someone so much, and my heart just broke for all those families," he said.
The man said he would now consider the death penalty but only if the government proved a "very compelling interest" for imposing it.
One of Tsarnaev's attorneys, Miriam Conrad, noted that an 8-year-old boy was among those who died in the marathon bombing and asked the prospective juror if that would influence any potential decision. After a pause, the man said he had been more affected by Newtown than the marathon, though he was not certain why.
Another prospective juror, who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he had been "dead set" against the death penalty as an idealistic young man but that he now considered it appropriate in extreme cases such as "unbelievably cruel, cold-blooded murder on a big scale."