Boston (AFP) – Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will return to court for the start of his sentencing trial Tuesday when prosecutors will demand that the American jury condemn the 21-year-old to death.
The Muslim of Chechen descent was convicted in US federal court earlier this month on all 30 counts related to the 2013 marathon bombings, the murder of a police officer, a car jacking and a shootout while on the run.
The sentencing trial opens one day after more than 27,000 people took part in this year’s marathon in Boston, which is still reeling from the memory of the attacks, the deadliest on US soil since 9/11.
It also comes as a growing number of survivors oppose the death penalty for Tsarnaev, a then teenage student, who with his elder brother Tamerlan killed three people and wounded 264 others in the bombings.
Married couple Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, who each lost limbs, this week joined the parents of the youngest victim, an eight-year-old boy, to call for life without parole or appeal instead.
The couple told The Boston Globe newspaper that sentencing Tsarnaev to life without parole and appeal was the best means of “assuring that he disappears from our collective consciousness as soon as possible.”
The second stage of the trial, which is expected to last up to four weeks at the federal court in the northeastern US city, will see both prosecutors and defense attorneys call witnesses.
Neither side has announced who they will call to the stand.
Who will testify?
It is unclear whether Tsarnaev, who has been a silent if fidgety presence in court, or any of his relatives will take the stand.
His parents now live in Russia, although his two sisters and Tamerlan’s widow, a U.S.-born Muslim convert, live in the States.
Prosecutors will try to convince the 12 jurors that there are enough aggravating factors — including premeditation, the number of victims, and a lack of remorse — to warrant capital punishment.
The defense will argue their client should be sentenced to life without parole, portraying a confused 19-year-old, frightened of his radicalized 26-year-old brother, who was shot dead by police while on the run.
“I think we’ll hear a lot more from the defense about who the defendant is, his young age, what is life has been like, what his relationship with his brother was,” said University of New Hampshire professor Albert Scherr, an expert on the death penalty.
Seventeen of his 30 convictions carry the death penalty under federal law.
The 12 jurors were selected in part based on their openness to impose the death penalty — controversial in a state that has not executed anyone since 1947 and where Catholic bishops oppose capital punishment.
On Friday, Bill and Denise Richard, whose son Martin was killed and daughter Jane lost a leg, said pursuit of the death penalty could entail years of appeals and “prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives.”
Any decision to drop the death penalty in the trial would have to be taken by Attorney General Eric Holder.
Must be unanimous
Tsarnaev’s chief defense lawyer Judy Clarke is one of America’s leading experts on capital punishment who has saved a string of high-profile clients from death row.
Statistics are on Tsarnaev’s side. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1984, only 79 people have been sentenced to die and only three have been executed, says the Death Penalty Information Center.
They were Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug trafficker Juan Garza in 2001, and Gulf War veteran Louis Jones in 2003 for the kidnap, rape, and murder of a 19-year-old female Army recruit.
Three other defendants received death verdicts, which were turned into life sentences after new trials were granted.
A nationwide poll carried out last month showed that support for the death penalty has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years in America.
Yet the Pew Research Center still found that 63 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is morally justified for a crime like murder.
As with its guilty convictions earlier this month, the jury’s decision has to be unanimous. If just one juror believes in extenuating circumstances, then Tsarnaev will be sentenced to life in prison, Scheer said.
They must also be unanimous on whether the different aggravating factors are enough to sentence him to death.
“That is really a hard decision,” Scherr said.
Photo: Rebecca Hildreth via Flickr