After more than 18 months, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is finally underway.
Jury selection in the case against Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old accused of carrying out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is set to begin today under heavy security at the Moakley federal courthouse in downtown Boston. The seating of jurors is the first step in one of the nation's most closely watched federal death penalty trials since that of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, even though Massachusetts abolished capital punishment three decades ago.
Tsarnaev is accused of detonating a pair of homemade bombs amid a crowd of thousands of spectators at the annual Boston Marathon's finish line on April 15, 2013. He has pleaded not guilty to all 30 charges against him.
Jurors, selected from a pool of approximately 1,200 candidates, will decide whether Tsarnaev planned and carried out the twin bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260 near the finish line of the race. In total, over 3,000 people received summonses. Tsarnaev's lawyers have attempted to get the trial moved for months, arguing that the Boston jury pool "was tainted because of the number of locals with connections to the race."
"Jury selection is expected to be a lengthy process because of extensive media coverage and the thousands of runners, spectators and others in the area affected by the bombings," the Associated Press notes. "The process also could be slowed if potential jurors express objections to the death penalty."
Tsarnaev appeared in court for the first time since 2013 in December, pleading not guilty to the charges alleged against him. His lawyers filed a motion requesting that the trial be pushed back to a later date of September 2015. Their request was denied.
One challenge for the prosecution could be finding jurors who aren't entirely opposed to the death penalty, which is banned under Massachusetts state law but applies in this case because Tsarnaev faces federal charges.
"Many of the bombing victims and their relatives are split on whether Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty if convicted — perhaps unsurprising in Massachusetts, a heavily Catholic state where most oppose the practice," explains Yahoo's Holly Bailey. "The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in the state in 1982, though in rare cases officials have continued to pursue it under federal law. Tsarnaev is only the fifth defendant in Massachusetts to be charged with the federal death penalty."
Tsarnaev's defense team has reportedly been making overtures to prosecutors seeking a plea deal that would allow their client to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. A September 2013 Boston Globe survey found that 57% of Boston residents supported a life sentence without parole for Tsarnaev, compared to 33% who supported the death penalty.