By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department will decide this week whether to seek the death penalty for suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of setting off two pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the world-renowned race.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that he would announce his decision before a Friday deadline set by a U.S. District Court Judge in Boston.
Tsarnaev, a 20-year-old ethnic Chechen, is accused of detonating the home-made bombs along with his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed during a shootout with police several days after the April 15 attack.
Three people, including an 8-year-old boy, were killed in the blasts, which marked the worst attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001. Another 264 people were injured by shrapnel, many of them losing limbs.
The case has been seen as an important test for the Justice Department, which has vowed to prosecute acts of terrorism to the fullest extent of the law, but would be doing so in a state that has abolished the death penalty.
“I would say it is a complicated decision,” said Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “There are complicated cultural, political, and legal questions.”
He would be surprised, he said, if the Justice Department took the death penalty off the table: “The President of the United States and the people at the Justice Department are not abolitionists, they are not against the death penalty… And they certainly will believe that they have reasonable grounds for prosecuting it as a capital case.”
A Boston Globe survey found last year that 57 percent of Boston residents favored life in prison for Tsarnaev, if he is convicted, with 33 percent in favor of execution. Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, nearly four decades after the last execution in the state, but the sentence can still be applied in federal cases tried in the state.
Attorneys for Tsarnaev have argued against a possible death sentence, in part because they claim Dzhokhar was following the lead of his older brother. They have also accused the government of throwing up unfair obstacles to hinder preparation of their client’s defense, including seeking to rush the start of trial and not sharing important evidence.
The blasts killed 8-year-old Martin Richard and injured several members of his family who were standing near the finish line. Krystle Campbell, 29, and Lu Lingzi, 23, also died in the explosions.
Tsarnaev is accused as well in the post-explosion shooting death of Sean Collier, 27, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer.
A trial date for Tsarnaev has not yet been set. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Gunna Dickson)