A federal appeals court Friday overturned the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted after helping his brother plant two pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people and leaving hundreds more with serious injuries.
A three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the judge failed to allow enough questioning of potential jurors about how extensively they followed media coverage of the bombings.
"A core promise of our criminal justice system is that even the very worst among us deserves to be fairly tried and lawfully punished," the court said.
The 182-page opinion said long-standing court decisions require a judge handling a high profile case to let defense lawyers ask prospective jurors extensive questions about the kind and degree of their exposure to media coverage. "But despite a diligent effort, the judge here did not meet the standard," the opinion stated.
As a result of the ruling, Tsarnaev must be given a new sentencing hearing, although his conviction stands.
"Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution," the court said, using his first name to avoid confusion in the ruling with his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police four days after the bombing.
A spokeswoman for Boston's U.S. Attorney, Andrew Lelling, said the office is reviewing the decision and will have more to say "in the coming days and weeks."
During the trial, Tsarnaev's lawyers did not deny his role in the marathon bombing, one of the worst terror attacks in the United States since 9/11. But they said he was easily manipulated by his brother, whom they called the mastermind. Tsarnaev sat impassively in the courtroom as survivors of the bombing took their turns in the witness box only a few feet away, describing losses of limbs and the continuing pain from shrapnel that was packed inside the pressure cooker bombs.
Word of Friday's ruling stunned many in Boston, a community where nearly everyone knew someone affected by the bombings. Bill Richard, the father of an 8-year-old boy killed in the attack, declined to comment but referred to the essay he and his wife wrote at the time of the sentencing.
"We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives," it said.
Tsarnaev, who is now 27, has been at the federal maximum security penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, since the trial ended in 2015.
The court also said District Court Judge George O’Toole improperly blocked evidence about a 2011 triple murder in the Boston suburb of Waltham, in which three men were bound, beaten, and killed when their throats were slit. The FBI interviewed a man who said he was there when Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, carried out the murders. The judge ruled that the testimony was unproven and that the killings were too far removed from the bombings. But the appeals court said the defense was deprived of evidence that showed the older brother was violent and domineering.