But last July, the judges agreed with Tsarnaev’s lawyers that the judge overseeing his 2015 trial did not adequately question potential jurors for bias in the case, which received massive publicity.
In overturning Tsarnaev’s death sentence, the panel also said some evidence was improperly withheld that might have indicated his older brother, Tamerlan, was more culpable for the bombing. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed as police closed in on the brothers days after the April 2013 bombing.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that there had been no significant errors in U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr.’s handling of the high-profile trial.
“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed heinous crimes,” Thomas wrote, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. “The Sixth Amendment nonetheless guaranteed him a fair trial before an impartial jury. He received one.”
In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer addressed only one part of Tsarnaev’s case — his lawyers’ arguments that older brother Tamerlan “took the leading role and induced Dzhokhar’s participation in the bombings.” Specifically, O’Toole said the lawyers could not introduce disputed testimony that Tamerlan previously committed three murders in Waltham, Mass.
That could have raised doubt at the sentencing phase about Dzhokhar’s role, Breyer wrote, and “it would have taken only one juror’s change of mind to have produced a sentence other than death, even if a severe one.”
Thomas countered that O’Toole was right not to introduce the unrelated murder, partly because there was no way to “confirm or verify the relevant facts, since all of the parties involved were dead.”
Breyer’s dissent was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But neither joined a part of the opinion in which Breyer expressed his doubts about capital punishment.
“I have written elsewhere about the problems inherent in a system that allows for the imposition of the death penalty,” Breyer wrote. “This case provides just one more example of some of those problems.”
The case created a dilemma for the Justice Department, which had asked the Supreme Court to reverse the appeals court decision. But Tsarnaev would not be executed in the near term, since President Biden has halted federal executions and opposes the death penalty.
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev.