ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court today reinstated the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted in the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. The vote was 6-3, with the court's liberals in dissent.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports. And a warning - some of the sounds and descriptions you're about to hear are disturbing.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Patriots Day, April 15, 2013 dawned with perfect weather for the annual running of the Boston Marathon. By mid-afternoon, the elite runners had long since ended their runs. The ball game at Fenway Park was over, and many of the fans joined the throngs at the finish line to greet the last nearly 6,000 runners. Then it happened - two explosions in rapid succession, a fireball, smoke and carnage.
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TOTENBERG: Three people were killed in the bombing, including an 8-year-old boy. Two hundred and sixty were injured, and severed limbs were everywhere.
Three days later, the FBI released photos of suspects they were seeking identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar. That night an MIT campus police officer was shot and killed, and the older brother died in a shootout with police. By morning, the hunt for Dzhokhar riveted the city.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And welcome back to our continuing coverage of this massive manhunt now underway in Boston.
TOTENBERG: Later that night, Dzhokhar was found hiding in a boat under a tarp and covered with blood.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's alive. He's in custody. And they're asking for a medic to the scene.
TOTENBERG: Though Massachusetts has no death penalty, two years later, a jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death on federal terrorism-related charges. In July 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals, based in Boston, overturned those death sentences, leaving Tsarnaev to serve out a life term. The unanimous panel said that despite a diligent effort, the trial judge had failed to properly screen the jury and barred mitigating evidence from being presented to the jury during the sentencing phase of the case.
Specifically, the judge barred the defense from presenting evidence that it claimed showed that the older Tsarnaev brother was the mastermind of the bombing and that he had a domineering and brutal history with the younger brother, who was a college student with no prior criminal record. To prove that, the defense wanted to introduce evidence of the older brother's alleged involvement in a triple murder two years before the marathon bombing, a murder in which he allegedly slit the throats of three men as an act of jihad on the anniversary of the 9/11 attack.
Today, however, the Supreme Court said the trial judge had acted appropriately and within his authority. Writing for the court majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had committed heinous crimes. The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial, and he received one. Brooklyn Law School professor Alexis Hoag, who represented defendants in capital cases for more than a decade, says the decision will have little effect in other cases.
ALEXIS HOAG: It does not forge new legal ground. Basically, the Supreme Court said that the First Circuit didn't give the district judge the discretion that's owed.
TOTENBERG: Even so, Dzhokhar will not be executed anytime soon. The Trump administration, in its waning days in office, ended a 16-year moratorium on federal executions and put to death 13 men in the space of just six months. But the Biden administration has restarted that moratorium so that the Justice Department can conduct a thorough review of the department's policies and procedures.
The dissent in today's case was relatively subdued. Justice Stephen Breyer argued that, due to the special irreversible nature of the death penalty, the Supreme Court's precedents allow great leeway at the sentencing phase and should have allowed more leeway in this case.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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