Supreme Court Reinstates Boston Bomber’s Death Penalty Sentence

The Biden Justice Department argued for Tsarnaev’s execution despite announcing a moratorium on federal death penalty cases last year.

In this May 15, 2015 courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, center, stands with his defense attorneys at the Moakley Federal court house in the penalty phase of his trial in Boston.Jane Flavell Collins/AP

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

In a 6-3 party-line ruling, the Supreme Court today restored the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the notorious terrorist who planned and carried out the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon with his brother Tamerlan.

In one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism since 9/11, the Tsarnaev brothers placed two pressure cooker bombs near the marathon finish line, which detonated, killing three people and injuring 260 more. In the days following, the brothers murdered an MIT police officer and engaged in a firefight with law enforcement in Watertown, Massachusetts, during which Tamerlan Tsarnaev sustained injuries that led to his death. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was later apprehended during a massive manhunt that effectively shut down the greater Boston area. 

Tsarnaev received the death penalty in 2015. Five years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld his conviction but ruled that he should not have been sentenced to death, citing concerns that the trial judge had not taken adequate steps to ensure that jurors had not been swayed by pretrial coverage of the case. In addition, the appeals court ruled that the trial judge should not have excluded evidence linking Tamerlan Tsarnaev to a triple murder that took place before the bombings, saying that it could have contributed to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s argument that his brother had dominated him into carrying out the attack. This ruling was in turn appealed to the Supreme Court. 

In a strange twist, the Supreme Court’s conservative members today sided with the Biden Department of Justice. The department argued for the restoration of Tsarnaev’s original death sentence, over the objections of the court’s liberal justices, and despite assurances from the president about a change in policy on executions.

Joe Biden, who personally opposes capital punishment, had previously vowed to “eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” In addition, the Justice Department’s decision to take up the case from Trump lawyers seems to contradict a moratorium on death penalty cases that the department announced last year. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett also seemed to change her stated opposition to the death penalty by filing a concurrence supporting Tsarnaev’s execution. When Barrett was a law clerk, she coauthored an article published in the Marquette Law Review arguing that orthodox Catholic judges (such as herself) should recuse themselves from death penalty cases rather than put themselves in the position of potentially having to violate the teachings of their church. As a justice, Barrett has previously voted to allow federal executions to proceed, but her vote today was additionally striking because it helped reinstate a death sentence that had previously been overturned. 

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate