The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of helping to carry out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—a narrow ruling that nonetheless speaks volumes about the high court’s attitude toward death sentences, says a Northeastern law professor. The attack, which Tsarnaev was convicted of carrying out with his brother, Tamerlan, killed three people and injured hundreds. The Tsarnaevs detonated two homemade bombs, made of pressure cookers and filled with nails and ball bearings, in the crowds of people watching the annual road race. After the bombs went off, police tracked the brothers throughout Greater Boston, and Tamerlan was killed in a shootout.
Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted on 30 terrorism-related charges and sentenced to death on six of them in federal court. Tsarnaev didn’t contest his guilt but appealed his death sentences.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, upheld Tsarnaev’s convictions in 2020 on 27 counts. But the appeals court ruled that his death sentence should be overturned because the trial judge had not questioned jurors closely enough about their exposure to pretrial publicity and had excluded evidence concerning previous criminal behavior of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling, issued last Friday, justices reversed the 2020 ruling that threw out Tsarnaev’s death sentence.
Here’s what that means—and what it doesn’t mean.