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Jury Selection To Begin Monday In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

The search begins Monday for the jurors who will decide the fate of the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the trial is one that many have been waiting for.

A couple of dozen survivors are expected in court for at least part of the trial — including Heather Abbott, who lost a leg in the attack. She's hoping for answers to both why and how the bombing was carried out.

"Things like how did the bomb arrive? Was it on the T? Did they drive it in a car? That may not mean a lot to other people, but my leg is gone, and I think a lot about all of the details," Abbott says.

Three bystanders and one police officer were killed in the blast and the aftermath, and hundreds were injured. Prosecutors have said the city of Boston itself was a victim of the bombing. That's why the defense wanted the trial moved somewhere else.

Former federal judge Nancy Gertner says it is going to be extremely difficult to find impartial jurors given how many people were personally affected by the blast in 2013.

"Anyone on the finish line, anyone who had anybody running in the race, anyone who was locked down while Tsarnaev was being apprehended, who was told to stay in their house because a dangerous criminal was outside — all people in that category are people who felt vulnerable to the crime," Gertner says. "There are categories that we would never in the ordinary case say should sit on a jury."

Jury selection is expected to take several weeks. After that, the trial may well feel like the easy part. Prosecutors have amassed reams of evidence against Tsarnaev — from bomb-making materials, and online instructions he allegedly used, to the note he allegedly scribbled in the boat where he was hiding, suggesting the attack was meant as retaliation for Muslims killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is also video from the scene that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz says further corroborates the case against Tsarnaev.

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed a backpack containing a kind of IED [roadside bomb] among a crowd of marathon spectators including dozens of men, women and children," Ortiz says.

"This case is not about guilt," says Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed. "In my mind, this case is really about whether or not he's going to get the death penalty."

Medwed says defense attorneys appear to be building a case that Tsarnaev's life should be spared because he was acting, in a way, under duress — terrified of his older brother and alleged co-conspirator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Medwed says the sentencing phase may be the longer and newsier part of the trial. "We're going to learn a lot about Dzhokhar's background, about his beliefs, about his upbringing, about his relationship with his brother," Medwed says. "We're going to learn more about Tamerlan than we've ever learned before."

But that focus on the suspects is one reason some are still holding out hope for a plea bargain.

Former judge Nancy Gertner says an 11th-hour deal could spare everyone the expense and trauma of trial. Prosecutors could present their evidence more quickly, and the sentencing phase would be focused primarily on victims.

Gertner points to Jared Loughner, who killed six and wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; who all pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison. A death sentence brings years of appeals, but a plea deal, she says, would offer more closure.

"The case is over. Tsarnaev is no longer in the press. The newspapers are not recounting countless appeals. It's over, and we don't hear of them anymore," Gertner says.

It's unknown if either prosecutors or Tsarnaev might be open to the idea. The most we've heard from the defendant, so far, is that he thinks his lawyers are doing a very good job on his behalf.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: February 22, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, says Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison. He did plead guilty, but the sentencing jury decided to give him life in prison rather than the death penalty.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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