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3Qs: Jury selection for marathon bombing trial

Daniel MedwedJury selection began Monday in the federal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who, along with his deceased brother Tamerlan, is accused of carrying out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that claimed three lives and injured more than 260 others. The brothers are also accused of killing Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier a few days after the bombings. The jury pool includes about 1,200 people, and the selection process is expected to take several weeks. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be picked for the trial, which is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 26.

We asked Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern and a nationally known expert in criminal law, to discuss jury selection for this high-profile trial.

How will the selection process play out from start to finish?

Jury selection will play out in a methodical, deliberate fashion. At the outset, jurors will fill out written questionnaires designed to alert the parties to potential biases, conflicts, or problems. A certain number of prospective jurors will be sorted out through this process; the remaining members of the pool will be questioned as part of the voir dire process.

The lawyers may challenge many of prospective jurors for “cause.” For example, prosecutors will undoubtedly object to people who are morally opposed to the death penalty and the defense team will likely oppose the selection of those directly affected by the marathon bombings.

In addition, each side has 20 so-called “peremptory” challenges that can be used to reject people without articulating a reason as long as they are not employed in a discriminatory manner.

Will the high-profile nature of this case make jury selection different from other cases? Will the prosecutor or defense attorneys have to ask different questions or make special considerations when selecting jurors?

I think jury selection in the Tsarnaev trial will differ from more run-of-the-mill cases in two principal ways. First, federal prosecutors have chosen to pursue the death penalty, which is exceedingly rare in Massachusetts given the abolition of capital punishment at the state level in 1984 and the fact that it is seldom invoked by federal prosecutors in the commonwealth.

Second, the scale of the harm wrought by the marathon bombing is enormous, arguably unprecedented in Boston history. Many people know someone—or know someone who knows someone—who was hurt. This means that many jurors will be subject to challenges for “cause” and that it will take much longer than usual to assemble a jury.

The defense filed several motions for a change of venue for the trial, all of which were denied. How will the fact that the trial is in Boston impact the jury selection process for the prosecution and defense?

The gist of the defense’s position in those motions was that pretrial publicity essentially “poisoned the pool”—that the sensationalized media coverage has made it difficult, if not impossible, to find jurors who can be fair and impartial. To that end, both the prosecution and defense will presumably ask ample questions aimed at exploring this issue.

From the defense perspective, the main concerns likely revolve around whether a prospective juror has already “pre-convicted” Tsarnaev due to experiences during the incident itself, relationships with victims, or views formed through local media outlets. From the prosecution perspective, I imagine many of the questions will focus on potential jurors’ opinions on capital punishment.

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