Supreme Court reinstates death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The Supreme Court has issued a 6-3 decision reversing the First Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that had vacated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentences in the Boston Marathon bombing case.  United States v. Tsarnaev, 595 U.S. ___ (March 4, 2022).  The Supreme Court began by rejecting the First Circuit's conclusion that the District Court had abused its discretion during jury selection by declining to ask about the kind and degree of each prospective juror's media exposure, as required by First Circuit precedent.  The Supreme Court observed that it "has held many times that a district court enjoys broad discretion to manage jury selection, including what questions to ask prospective jurors" and that "a reviewing court may set aside a district court’s questioning only for an abuse of discretion."  The Supreme Court then held that "a court of appeals cannot supplant the district court’s broad discretion to manage voir dire by prescribing specific lines of questioning, and thereby circumvent a well-established standard of review."  (The dissent in this case by Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan and in all but one part by Justice Sotomayor, did not reach this issue.)

The second basis for invalidating the death sentences had been the First Circuit's finding that the District Court abused its discretion during sentencing when it excluded evidence concerning the possible involvement by Tsarnaev's older brother in an earlier triple-murder.  The defense theory was that Tsarneav's now deceased brother had been the mastermind behind the Boston bombing crimes and that Tsarnaev was pressured into assisting him.  The earlier murders, according to the defense, provided evidence of the older brother's domineering nature.  The primary proof that the older brother had committed the triple homicide was a statement made to investigating officers by a person who was killed shortly thereafter by the investigating officers. The District Court granted the prosecution's motion to exclude any reference to the triple murder, finding that the available information was “without any probative value” and “would be confusing to the jury and a waste of time.”  The Supreme Court majority concluded that the District Court's ruling was reasonable and there was no Eighth Amendment violation in the application of the statutory provision allowing exclusion of information if "its probative value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury."  Justice Breyer, with Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, dissented, finding that the reasons provided by the District Court did not justify excluding the triple-murder evidence, and it was an abuse of discretion to do so.