Your Basic Guide to Understanding What’s Happening in the Tsarnaev Case

  • When I first started following the Tsarnaev trial, I realized I had a few questions that seemed rather basic. Feeling embarrassed, I went to a few close friends but realized they too were lost for answers. So, here are 5 answers to questions you might be too embarrassed to ask.
  1. Doesn’t MA prohibit the death penalty?
    • Even though Massachusetts law doesn’t allow the death penalty for murder, this is a federal case alleging violations of laws of the United States rather than a state case involving Massachusetts law.
  2. What’s happening right now?
    • Jury Selection or, in legal jargon, “Voir Dire”
      • 12 jurors and 6 alternates (a total of 18 people) need to be selected and agreed upon as suitable to serve at trial.
      • During Voir Dire, jurors are questioned individually by the Judge, Prosecutors and defense lawyers. This is done to inquire further into the juror’s views and attitudes.
  3. Why is jury selection taking so long? For a couple of reasons:
      • 1,373 prospective jurors filled out a pre-trial questionnaire that would help to weed out some of those people based on answers that would prove them unsuitable to serve on the jury.
      • Of the remaining individuals who weren’t weeded out from the 1,373, the Judge and lawyers must find an unbiased jury (easier said than done). A majority already see Tsarnaev as guilty (i.e. presumption of guilt). Complicating this more is that even if a potential juror claims they can accept the presumption of innocence, other factors, such as bias toward the defendant or sympathy for the victims, may lead the legal teams to feel otherwise.
  4. Did he plead not guilty?
    1. Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty to 30 charges, 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty.
  1. What happens after they pick a jury?
  • When the death penalty is an option, the trial is bifurcated-it involves two phases:
    • Guilt Phase
      • The jury decides if the defendant is guilty or innocent based on the evidence presented by the defense and prosecution. The burden of proof is on the government.
      • If proven guilty, the trial proceeds into the Penalty Phase
    • Penalty Phase
      • Additional information is presented to the jury:
        • Aggravating factors (which are set forth in the statute and involve, among other matters, the nature and violence of the act, degree of planning, etc.); and,
        • Mitigating factors (factors about the individual’s background that might result in a lesser punishment)
          • Some have suggested mitigating factors can be expected to be a central part of the defense, namely that Tsarnaev played a subordinate role to that of his older brother
      • The jury will determine whether to sentence Tsarnaev to death or life in prison without release.

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February 13, 2015