Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Sentenced To Death In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

Final justice, but far from the end of the road.

Tsarnaev Trial

Five weeks after having been convicted of his role in the Boston Marathon Bombing, and two years and one month from the day of the bombing itself, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death today by a Federal Court jury made up largely of residents of the city that he and his brother had terrorized for a week in April 2013:

BOSTON — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat stone-faced in a federal court here on Friday as a jury sentenced him to death for setting off bombs at the 2013Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured hundreds more in the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

The jury of seven women and five men, which last month convicted Mr. Tsarnaev, 21, of all 30 charges against him, 17 of which carry the death penalty, took more than 14 hours to reach its decision.

It was the first time a federal jury had sentenced a terrorist to death in the post-Sept. 11 era, according to Kevin McNally, director of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which coordinates the defense in capital punishment cases.

Prosecutors portrayed Mr. Tsarnaev, who immigrated to Cambridge, Mass., from the Russian Caucasus with his family in 2002, as a coldblooded, unrepentant jihadist who sought to kill innocent Americans in retaliation for the deaths of innocent Muslims in American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The Tsarnaev verdict goes against the grain in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty for state crimes and where polls showed that residents overwhelmingly favored life in prison for Mr. Tsarnaev. Many respondents said that life in prison for one so young would be a fate worse than death, and some worried that execution would make him a martyr.

But the jurors in his case had to be “death qualified” — that is, they all had to be willing to impose the death penalty to serve on the jury. So in that sense, the jury was not representative of the state.

Before they could decide that Mr. Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, the jurors had to wade through a complicated, 24-page verdict slip. On it, they had to weigh the aggravating factors that would justify his death as well as the mitigating factors, presented by the defense, that would argue for him to live.

Despite that complicated process, Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. of Federal District Court, who presided in the case, told jurors that their final decision should not be based on a numerical comparison of aggravating factors to mitigating factors. Rather, he said, they should use their individual judgment and internal moral compass.

The final words that jurors heard before beginning deliberations on Wednesday were a blistering assessment from William Weinreb, the lead prosecutor, about why Mr. Tsarnaev should be executed and not simply locked up.

“The callousness and indifference that allows you to destroy people’s lives, to ignore their pain, to shrug off their heartbreak — that doesn’t go away just because you’re locked up in a prison cell,” Mr. Weinreb told them. “It’s what enables you to be a terrorist, and it’s what insulates you from feelings of remorse.”

Life imprisonment, he added, is the minimum punishment authorized by law for these deaths — the three at the marathon and the death a few days later of an M.I.T. police officer. It is “a lesser punishment than death,” he said, even though some argue that a lifetime in prison is worse.

“Does he deserve the minimum punishment, or do these crimes, these four deaths, demand something more?” Mr. Weinreb asked the jury. “Please ask yourself that question when you go back to deliberate.”

By all accounts, the prosecution presented as solid and strong a case in the sentencing phase of the trial as they did in the guilt phase of the trial. Given the nature of the attack that Tsarnaev was involved in, and the manner in which the attack was carried out, it probably wasn’t very hard for the jurors to go through each of the aggravating factors set forth on the 24 page form referenced above and find agreement that the prosecution had met its burden. By and large, that is exactly what they did. There were a small number of aggravating factors were the jurors could not find agreement, but for the most part they found that Tsarnaev’s actions met each of the criteria that the law requires the jury to find in order to reach the point where a death sentence can be considered.

The real test of the sentencing phase of the trial was whether the defense would be able to put forward enough mitigating evidence to convince at least one of the jurors that a sentence of death would be inappropriate. Toward that end, the defense portion of the sentencing phase concentrated on the relationship between Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan, Tamerlan’s radicalization before and after his trip to Russia, the influence of both Tamerlan and his mother in radicalizing Dzhokhar, and the argument that Tamerlan was the one who planned the bombing and used his influence to convince his brother to participate. This was accomplished mainly through testimony from some of Tsarnaev’s relatives, many of whom had been flown to Boston from Russia for the purpose of testifying. Additionally, the defense presented testimony from Sister Helen Prejean, the anti death penalty activist who was the basis for the main character in the movie Dead Man Walking. Prejean had previously met with Tsarnaev in prison and testified to what she claimed was remorse that he communicated to her during their conversations. This, however, was the only real evidence of remorse that the defense presented to the jury. Tsarnev himself, of course, did not testify because anything he could have said that would have helped mitigate his faith would have likely been more than offset by whatever would come out in cross-examination. In the end, perhaps not surprisingly, the defense’s efforts to save Tsarnaev failed and there were only a few jurors who found the existence of any of the mitigating factors  Obviously though, even for those jurors the mitigating factors were not sufficient to outweigh the totality of the evidence, and they unanimously sentenced him to die.

Now that Tsarnaev has been sentenced, the court system will do what it does in these cases. By law, he is entitled to a number of appeals and several legal observers have noted that there are several legal issues that could form the basis for a strong appeal even though it is unlikely that either the verdict or the sentence will be overturned, What remains unknown at this point is when Tsarnaev might actually be executed. By way for reference, Timothy McVeigh was convicted for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1997 and executed in 2001, but that four year gap is not necessarily a good guide since McVeigh had ultimately abandoned his remaining appeals in 1999. A better measure is the fact that, since 1988 eighty people have been sentenced to die in Federal Court, but only three of them, including Timothy McVeigh, have been executed. Of the remainder, some have died in prison or had their sentenced vacated, but the majority of them are cases that are still tied up in appeals. If Tsarnaev chooses to, this matter could be tied up for some time to come, which is, of course, one of the factors that led the family of eight year-old victim Martin Richard to call for him to be sentenced to life in prison instead of death. The jury was made aware of that fact during the sentencing phase, but chose to sentence him to die anyway. So, now, it just turns into a long waiting game.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I wish I believed in God so I could enjoy the prospect of this vicious little sh!t explaining to Allah that he murdered children as a way of honoring their Creator.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I oppose the death penalty but it may have actually been the human thing to do. A 21 year old being sentenced to life in solitary confinement is probably a fate worse than death. Even after spending the 6 to 8 years the appeals will take in solitary he will be bat shit crazy.

  3. CSK says:

    I don’t think anyone who saw the surveillance image of Tsarnaev planting the bomb by that group of little children and walking away smirking and grinning with delight will ever forget it.

    Nor will anyone who saw the image of little Martin Richard reaching out to his mother as he was dying forget that.

    Certainly the jury didn’t.

  4. @Ron Beasley:

    I oppose the death penalty generally for reasons I’ve stated before.

    That being said, I’m not really going to lose much sleep over this guy’s fate.

  5. Argon says:

    Not too thrilled with what passes for civilization right now. I would’ve much preferred a life in prison sentence. I suppose if you’re going to preload the jury with people who are OK with capital punishment then the outcomes will be skewed.

    Now we’re going to have a legal process that costs more than incarceration would have.

  6. Rob Prather says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Complete agreement Doug.

  7. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Basic agreement. The death penalty is brutal and disgusting, and I could never vote to impose it, but I honestly cannot say that I care that this particular man will die from it.

    There’s lots of injustice in the world. Clearly guilty mass murderers being murdered by the state is not in the top 100. I feel more for the idiot going blind because he wouldn’t sign up for ObamaCare.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    On a lighter note consider this for the quote of the week:

    A priest who ate at the restaurant was surprised when presented with a bill of 700 Naira, or roughly $3.50 (Tens of millions of people in Nigeria subsist on less than $1 a day). “The attendant noticed my reaction and told me it was the small piece of meat I had eaten that made the bill scale that high,” he said. “I did not know I had been served with human meat, and that it was that expensive.

  9. DrDaveT says:


    I would’ve much preferred a life in prison sentence.

    Who is better off in that case?

    Not the prisoner, going by what my personal preferences would be were I in his shoes.
    Not the taxpayers, who would be wasting millions of dollars to house and feed and ?protect someone deemed of no value to society.
    Not the victims, or their survivors.

    I generally oppose the death penalty because it is unequally applied and prone to egregious targeting errors. In this specific unique case, I don’t think those are issues.

  10. ernieyeball says:

    The death penalty is not for the condemned. It is for us.
    It is for our blood lust and our quest for righteous justice.
    It is for those who believe that there is an afterlife. He can suffer in hell!
    No he is just dead.
    No more tears.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    I doubt that he will ever be executed. Of the 67 prisoners that have been sentenced to death in the federal courts only 3 have actually been executed in the last 50 years. Another problem is the federal government has the same problem states do – they don’t have the drugs necessary for lethal injection.

  12. Xenos says:


    The death penalty is not for the condemned. It is for us.
    It is for our blood lust and our quest for righteous justice

    For some people a correspondingly violent act needs to set the universe in balance.

    Essentially it is a form of human sacrifice.

  13. ernieyeball says:

    How anyone could measure the “balance of the universe”, whatever that even means, is beyond my the scope of my mortal mind.

  14. Grewgills says:

    Come on man, you’re up for it.

  15. Surreal American says:

    Just imagine how tough his sentence would have been if Tsarnaev’s citizenship had been revoked by government decree and he had been brought before a military tribunal, as per Lindsay Graham’s counsel?

    He would have received a double, even a triple death penalty!

    I guess Senator Graham can proportionately limit his daily bed-wetting knowing that the Federal system was capable of dealing with this defendant. Turns out Tsarnaev the terrorist wasn’t a Magneto-like supervillain after all.

  16. Lenoxus says:

    On NPR, a reporter suggested that Tsarnaev’s lack of expression during the trial obviously hurt him, given the outcome. My first thought was that what probably really lost the jury’s sympathy was killing all those people. (To be fair to the reporter, he had been talking a lot about legal details and had to improvise in response to a question about the defendant’s reaction. And over-attribution of causes is basically modern media’s schtick in general.)

    @michael reynolds: Of course, the fact that God apparently permits the terrible deaths of children, by both natural and human causes, is itself a common justification for atheism anyway…

    @Argon: I’m against the death penalty but I’m not fond of the expense argument. Those expenses derive from legal mercies that I’m very glad exist so long as we have capital punishment. A death penalty proponent could counter the expense argument by proposing that we forbid all appeals and kill the convict the morning after the trial. And even if it was somehow inherently more expensive to kill than to imprison, I’d be uncomfortable making that a consideration in questions of justice unless the cost were really significant.

    @Surreal American: In fact, Tsarnaev got six death penalties, so I guess a military tribunal would have given him twelve and added sone torture for kicks.

  17. bill says:

    maybe they could just put him in gen-pop, things will take care of themselves.

  18. Lenoxus says:

    @bill: I appreciate that when you decided to present a pointless false dichotomy, you didn’t go for the “We might as well hold his hands and sing Kumbaya” cliche.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So, now, it just turns into a long waiting game.

    Correction: So now it turns into a shorter waiting game.

    Seriously, we are ALL sentenced to death. Why does this little cockroach get the same? Ohhhh, you think a shorter life is worse than a longer one? How little you know.