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US Supreme Court reinstates Tsarnaev death penalty

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“The District Court did not abuse its broad discretion by declining to ask about the content and extent of each juror’s media consumption regarding the bombings,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion, adding that the trial judge correctly found the defense’s proposed question about media consumption was too broad.

Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for placing a bomb in front of the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013 that killed 8-year-old Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China.

His older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, placed a bomb that killed Krystle Campbell, 29, of Arlington. More than 260 people suffered injuries in the blast, including several victims who lost limbs.

The brothers also killed MIT police officer Sean Collier while they were on the run after the bombings. Tamerlan was killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown days after the blasts.

The month after the bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was implicated in the Waltham slayings by a friend, Ibragim Todashev, who told the FBI that they had planned to rob the men, who sold marijuana, but Tsarnaev killed them because he didn’t want any witnesses, according to court filings. Shortly after making the statements, Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent whom he allegedly attacked, according to officials.

In his opinion, Justice Thomas was unmoved by the Waltham evidence, which the defense wanted to cite at trial as evidence that Tsarnaev was under the sway of his domineering, violent older brother when he agreed to go along with the bombings.

Thomas said the trial judge’s decision to exclude the Waltham evidence was reasonable.

“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,” Thomas wrote. “Nor was there any way to confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involved were dead.”

But in a dissenting opinion Friday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the appeals court that tossed the death sentence “acted lawfully in holding that the District Court should have allowed Dzhokhar to introduce this evidence” of the Waltham killings.

“The Waltham evidence tended to show that Tamerlan was involved in a brutal triple murder … a year and a half before the bombings,” Breyer wrote. “The evidence tended to show that Tamerlan committed these murders for ideological reasons.”

Breyer said the Waltham evidence of Tamerlan’s involvement in the triple slaying “supports the claim” he was “the violent, radicalizing force behind the ideologically motivated bombings a year and a half later.”

Thomas was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, while Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Breyer’s dissent.

“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is reversed.”

US Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael S. Rollins offered a measured response to the Supreme Court ruling.

“On April 15, 2013, Boston changed forever. Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Officer Sean Collier were murdered, while hundreds of other innocent victims were maimed and wounded,” Rollins said in a statement. “Although the scar remains some nine years later, the resiliency of our city, the families of the victims, and the hundreds of brave survivors knows no bounds.”

Despite Friday’s ruling, Rollins continued, “There remain … other legal issues that must be addressed by various courts. Legal rulings don’t erase trauma and pain. Our focus today, and always, is on the hundreds of families that were deeply impacted and traumatized by this horrific act of domestic terrorism.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley sharply criticized Thomas’s opinion in a statement.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today to reinstate the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case is deeply disappointing, but unsurprising for this far-right majority Court that has shown time and again its contempt for the people,” Pressley said. “The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment that has no place in society.”

Pressley urged Congress to pass the pending Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act and said she continues to “call on President Biden to take executive action” to halt federal executions and commute death sentences. She said Biden vowed to her that the federal government wouldn’t execute anyone under his watch.

Dic Donohue, a retired MBTA Transit Police sergeant who was shot during the pursuit of the Tsarnaevs in Watertown, tweeted Friday that the legal saga “never ends,” while also noting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev “can’t kill anyone else.”

Chris Doughty, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in a statement voiced support for the high court ruling that came down Friday.

“Tsarnaev specifically targeted the innocent trying to cause as many deaths and injuries as possible,” Doughty said. “The Supreme Court made a just decision in upholding the death penalty for Tsarnaev. I am hoping that this may give the victims and their families a sliver of relief. It cannot bring back those who we lost, but maybe it will be a deterrent.”

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.


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