In a 6-3 decision that broke along familiar ideological lines, the court’s conservative majority sided with the Justice Department’s argument that a lower court erred when it vacated the death sentence Tsarnaev received after being found guilty of perpetrating the 2013 attack.
“Dzohkhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one.”
The court’s three liberals dissented in an opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer that was joined in full by Justice Elena Kagan and in large part by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. They expressed their view that Tsarnaev had been wrongly blocked during his sentencing phase from introducing evidence that he was coerced by his older brother into participating in the attack.
Tsarnaev, 28, and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated homemade pressure-cooker bombs placed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, injuring some 260 people and killing three, including an 8-year-old child. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during an ensuing manhunt.
After a six-week trial in 2015, Tsarnaev was convicted of 30 charges, including the use of a weapon of mass destruction. The jury later handed him a death sentence, which Tsarnaev appealed.
The Boston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in 2020 agreed to overturn his death sentence. The appellate court ruled that the trial judge had failed to adequately screen jurors for possible bias and had improperly excluded evidence that Tsarnaev had been coerced by his older brother into helping to carry out the marathon bombing.
During the sentencing phase of Tsarnaev’s case, he had sought to bolster the claim about his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s undue influence by introducing allegations that the elder Tsarnaev had been the ringleader in a 2011 triple murder.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been implicated in the triple murder by alleged co-assailant Ibragim Todashev, who was killed in 2013 by law enforcement officers investigating the crime, meaning none of the alleged witnesses to the crime were alive.
In Friday’s opinion, the conservative majority held that the trial court had reasonable grounds in declining to question jurors about their media exposure to the bombing, and in denying Tsarnaev’s request to introduce evidence of his late brother’s alleged past crimes.
“Dzhokhar sought to divert the sentencing jury’s attention to a triple homicide that Tamerlan allegedly committed years prior, though there was no allegation that Dzhokhar had any role in that crime. Nor was there any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involved were dead,” Thomas wrote.
“As the District Court explained, there simply was insufficient evidence to describe any participation Tamerlan may have had or tell who played what role, if they played roles,” Thomas continued. “The District Court did not abuse its discretion when finding that the evidence lacked probative value, would confuse the jury, and ultimately would be nothing more than a waste of time.”
In dissent, the court’s three liberals said the trial court abused its discretion in preventing the jury from hearing evidence of the older brother’s alleged past crimes. That evidence, Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion, “supported Dzhokhar’s theory that Tamerlan’s violent and radicalizing influence induced all of the actions Dzhokhar took in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings.”
“This evidence may have led some jurors to conclude that Tamerlan’s influence was so pervasive that Dzhokhar did not deserve to die for any of the actions he took in connection with the bombings, even those taken outside of Tamerlan’s presence,” Breyer wrote. “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.”
The Tsarnaev case had been seen as an early test for President Joe Biden, who during the 2020 campaign publicly opposed the death penalty, making him the first U.S. president to have staked out that position.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in July ordered a moratorium on federal executions while the Department of Justice (DOJ) undertakes a policy review, though the DOJ is still advocating for the death sentence in some cases.