Justia Summary

In 2013, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan planted and detonated homemade bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line, killing three and wounding hundreds. The brothers fled, murdering a campus police officer, carjacking a student, and fighting a street battle with police during which Dzhokhar inadvertently killed Tamerlan.

Dzhokhar was indicted for 30 crimes, including 17 capital offenses. In a 100-question screening form that included several questions regarding whether media coverage had biased prospective jurors, the district court declined to include a question that asked each prospective juror to list the facts he had learned about the case from the media and other sources. Dzhokhar was convicted on all counts. At sentencing, Dzhokhar argued that Tamerlan had masterminded the bombing and pressured Dzhokhar to participate. The court denied Dzhokhar’s request to introduce allegations that, years earlier, Tamerlan had participated in a triple homicide in Waltham. The jury imposed the death penalty. The First Circuit vacated Dzhokhar’s capital sentences.

The Supreme Court reversed. The district court did not abuse its broad discretion; the jury question at issue wrongly emphasized what a juror knew before coming to court, rather than potential bias. The court used the 100-question juror form to cull prospective jurors, then subjected those remaining to three weeks of individualized voir dire that probed for bias. The court instructed the jurors that their decisions must be based only on the evidence presented at trial.

At the sentencing phase of a capital trial, “information may be presented as to any matter relevant to the sentence, including any mitigating or aggravating factor,” 18 U.S.C. 3593(c). A district court may exclude information “if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury.” The excluded evidence would not have allowed the jury to assess Tamerlan’s alleged role in the Waltham murders and had the potential to confuse the jury. Section 3593(c) does not violate the Eighth Amendment but establishes a regime that affords a capital defendant every reasonable opportunity to present relevant mitigation evidence. The inclusion of the Waltham-murders evidence risked producing a confusing mini-trial in which the only witnesses were dead.