2 reasons why Boston Marathon bomber case is being heard in the Supreme Court

With all nine justices back in the courtroom Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence, eight years after the attack. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With all nine justices back in the courtroom today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence, eight years after the attack.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang.:

    The April 2013 attack stunned the nation.

  • Man:

    Oh, God. Get out of the stands.

  • John Yang.:

    Two homemade bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three spectators, one of them 8 years old. More than 260 were injured; 16 of them lost legs, including a 7-year-old girl.

  • Man:

    If you see these men, contact law enforcement.

  • John Yang.:

    Before a five-day manhunt ended, Boston was locked down, and a college police officer and one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were dead.

    His brother, Dzhokhar, was captured. After a month-long federal court trial, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on 30 counts and sentenced him to death. Last year, an appeals court threw out that penalty, though not the convictions, saying the trial judge made two mistakes. First, the appeals court said, the trial judge wouldn't let defense lawyers ask potential jurors if they had been influenced by pretrial publicity.

  • Miriam Conrad, Federal Public Defender:

    We felt very strongly that this case should not be tried in Boston.

  • John Yang.:

    Federal public defender Miriam Conrad was on Tsarnaev's trial defense team, but is not involved in his appeal.

  • Miriam Conrad:

    It wasn't just the media coverage, but it was the way the event permeated the entire city.

    Many people were exposed to false and inflammatory information during the time when the case was pending, and we felt it was absolutely crucial to find out what they had read or heard or seen, especially given the proliferation of social media.

  • John Yang.:

    Second, the appeals court said the trial judge wrongly excluded evidence the defense said suggested that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was more responsible for the bombing.

  • Miriam Conrad:

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar's older brother, had murdered three men in Waltham, Massachusetts, on September 11, 2011. The judge excluded the Waltham murders, explaining that it would be confusing and a waste of time.

    If it had not been for Tamerlan, Dzhokhar never would have committed these crimes. If he was not the instigator, if he was not the planner, then he is less culpable.

  • John Yang.:

    In today's oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito seemed to agree with the trial judge.

  • Samuel Alito, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice:

    At a trial, you don't have these mini-trials. If a person's on trial for murder X, you don't have a trial about murder Y and murder Z.

    To what degree can a trial judge in — at the penalty phase say, we're not going to do this? Because what would happen then is another trial within this trial about what happened at Waltham.

  • John Yang.:

    But Justice Elena Kagan suggested to Deputy Solicitor General Edward (sic) Feigin that the jury should have had the chance to hear it.

  • Elena Kagan, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice:

    Isn't this a classic case in which the evidence, understood one way, is highly relevant to a mitigation defense, and the evidence understood in the way you just suggested just says, that's crazy, it didn't happen that way?

    But that's what a jury is supposed to do, isn't it?

  • Eric Feigin, U.S. Deputy Solicitor General:

    There was going to be no cross-examination here. The only people who might have known what happened in Waltham, both of them were dead.

  • John Yang.:

    Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Feigin about President Biden's opposition to the federal death penalty.

  • Samuel Alito, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee:

    But you're here defending his death sentences. And if you win, presumably, that means that he is relegated to living under threat of a death sentence that the government doesn't plan to carry out.

  • Eric Feigin:

    What we are asking here is that the sound judgment of 12 of respondent's peers that he warrants capital punishment for his personal acts in murdering and maiming scores of innocents, and along with his brother, hundreds of innocents at the finish line of the Boston Marathon should be respected.

  • John Yang.:

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": I think the bottom line here is that the court may very well, in a divided opinion, reinstate the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

    And I think the court is divided, in terms of the six conservatives being more sympathetic to the government's arguments that the federal appellate court here was wrong to set aside the death penalty for Tsarnaev, and also wrong on how the trial judge should've questioned jurors about the publicity they had experienced.

  • John Yang.:

    The justices are expected to rule by next summer. But no matter what they say, Tsarnaev will die in prison, as the appeals court ruling did not affect his 11 life sentences.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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