Published on: Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Supreme Court heard oral argument on Wednesday in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and appeared to lean toward reinstating the death sentence, though some of the justices were incredulous about the actions of the district court judge in the original trial (article available here).

The question in Wednesday's case was not Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's guilt, but whether he was properly sentenced to death and whether he had a fair trial. Although Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty, Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death. But the federal appeals court overturned the death sentences.

The justices focused on the trial judge's refusal to allow evidence that the defense said would show that Dzhokhar, 19 at the time of the bombing, was under the influence of his brother Tamerlan, seven years older. Specifically, the judge would not allow the jury to hear evidence allegedly showing that Tamerlan two years before the bombing slit the throats of three men in Waltham, Mass., in an act of jihad on the anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Several justices were skeptical, however, that the trial judge was wrong to exclude the evidence.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted the Biden administration has imposed a temporary moratorium on federal executions, but the administration is still defending the Tsarnaev death sentence. "If you win, presumably that means he is relegated to living under the threat of a death sentence that the government doesn't plan to carry out," she said. "So I'm just having trouble following the point."

Audio of the oral argument available here. Transcript of the oral argument available here.