On Friday, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the death penalty verdict for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The court ruled that the judge in Tsarnaev’s trial was not thorough enough in screening potential jurors for bias, and as a result, at least two people made it onto the jury without disclosing everything that they knew, or posted on social media, about the case. Tsarnaev has never denied carrying out the bombing with his older brother, Tamerlan, and the appellate court’s decision does not affect the jury’s guilty verdict, only the death sentence. The Department of Justice will need to decide whether to accept a sentence of life in prison for Tsarnaev or whether to re-do the penalty phase of the trial.
In my opinion, this decision was the right one for a simple reason: a woman known as Juror 286, who become the forewoman of the jury, failed to disclose that she had posted online about the case 22 times. She tweeted about being “locked down” with her family during the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers and about her sadness at the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard. Additionally, she retweeted celebratory messages after Tsarnaev’s capture, some including the ubiquitous phrase “Boston Strong” and one referring to Tsarnaev as a “piece of garbage.” The defense team asked the judge to excuse this juror for cause, but prosecutors described her tweets as “innocuous” and the judge apparently agreed.
The fact that someone was allowed onto a jury after calling the defendant a “piece of garbage” is outrageous. It would be difficult to imagine something more disqualifying, and more indicative of bias, than that. Calling someone a piece of garbage is not innocuous under any circumstances.
Making things worse, another individual, known as Juror 138, posted on Facebook that he was reporting for jury duty and repeatedly engaged with people who commented on the post throughout the day. One of the comments urged him to “play the part so u get on the jury then send him to jail where he will be taken care of” and another predicted that Tsarnaev would have “no shot in hell” if Juror 138 made it onto the jury.
Death sentences have been overturned in federal court before for far less. Triple-murderer Gary Sampson, for example, had his death sentence overturned when it was discovered that a juror failed to disclose a domestic dispute with her husband and the fact that her daughter went to jail for drugs.
Former Boston FBI director Richard DesLauriers called the Tsarnaev ruling “an unfortunate example of judicial activism and “a slap in the face” to the jurors. But it’s not judicial activism to logically apply principles of fairness and impartiality. And to be honest, anyone who calls a defendant in a criminal case a “piece of garbage” and then fails to disclose this during jury selection deserves to be slapped in the face. It’s sad that everyone has to go through another penalty trial, but when you look at things objectively, a verdict rendered by a jury whose foreperson called the defendant a “piece of garbage” is not a legitimate verdict and cannot be allowed to stand.