STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, a Boston court begins jury selection for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He is the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. The trial goes forward after a federal appeals court rejected an emergency bid to have it delayed or moved. Now a suspect, who was under 20 at the time of the bombing, could face the death penalty for 30 counts of murder and terrorism. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It was the deadliest act of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11, and the trial is one that many have been waiting for.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Back up a little bit. Give him a little space.
SMITH: Police could barely contain the horde of reporters who descended on court for a pre-trial hearing last month, swarming the marathon survivors who came to watch.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You want to step to the microphone?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You have to make room for people to pass through.
SMITH: A couple dozen survivors are expected in court for at least part of the trial, including Heather Abbott who lost a leg in the attack. She's hoping for answers to both why and how.
HEATHER ABBOTT: Things like, how did the bomb arrive? Was it on the T? Was it - did they drive it in a car? That may not mean a lot to other people, but my leg is gone. And I think a lot about all of the details.
SMITH: Three bystanders and one police officer were killed in the blast in the aftermath, and hundreds were injured. Prosecutors have said the city of Boston itself was a victim of the bombing. That's why the defense wanted the trial moved somewhere else. Former federal judge Nancy Gertner says it is going to be extremely difficult to find impartial jurors given how many people were personally affected by the blast.
NANCY GERTNER: Anyone on the finish line, anyone who had anybody running in the race, anyone who was locked down, while Tsarnaev was being apprehended, who was told to stay in their house because a dangerous criminal was outside - all people in that category are people who felt vulnerable to the crime. They're categories that we would never, in an ordinary case, say should sit on a jury.
SMITH: Jury selection is expected to take several weeks. After that, the trial itself may well feel like the easy part. Prosecutors have amassed reams of evidence against Tsarnaev, from bomb-making materials and online instructions he allegedly used, to the note he allegedly scribbled in the boat where he was hiding, suggesting the attack was meant as retaliation for Muslims killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's also video from the scene that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz says further corroborates the case against Tsarnaev
CARMEN ORTIZ: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed a backpack containing a kind of IED among a crowd of marathon spectators including dozens of men, women and children.
DANIEL MEDWED: This case is not about guilt. In my mind, this case is really about whether or not he's going to get the death penalty.
SMITH: Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed says defense attorneys appear to be building a case that Tsarnaev's life should be spared because he was acting, in a way, under duress, terrified of his older brother and alleged co-conspirator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Medwed says the sentencing phase may be the longer and newsier part of the trial.
MEDWED: We're going to learn a lot about Dzhokhar's background, about his beliefs, about his upbringing, about his relationship with his brother. We're going to learn more about Tamerlan than we've ever learned before.
SMITH: But that focus on the suspects is one reason some are still holding out hope for a plea bargain. Former judge Nancy Gertner says an 11th-hour deal could still spare everyone the expense and trauma of trial. Prosecutors could present their evidence more quickly, and the sentencing phase would be focused primarily on victims. Gertner points to 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, shoebomber Richard Reid and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who all pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison. A death sentence brings years of appeals, but a plea deal, she says, would offer more closure.
GERTNER: The case is over. Tsarnaev is no longer in the press. The newspapers are not recounting, you know, countless appeals. It's over, and we don't hear of them anymore.
SMITH: It's unknown if either prosecutors or Tsarnaev might be open to the idea - most we've heard from the defendant so far is that he thinks his lawyers are doing a very good job on his behalf. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The radio version and earlier text versions of this story said Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison. He did plead guilty, but the sentencing jury decided to give him life in prison rather than the death penalty.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.