Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit’s decision in United States v. Tsarnaev – also referred to as the Boston Marathon Bomber case. One argument that the Government presented before the Supreme Court was that the Court of Appeals improperly vacated Dzhokhar’s capital sentence based upon the questionnaire presented to prospective jurors during the jury selection process.
On April 15, 2015, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev planted and detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon – killing three people and wounding hundreds more. The brothers attempted to flee as investigators began to close in on them as suspects. In the process of fleeing, the brothers murdered a MIT campus police officer, carjacked a graduate student, and fought a street battle with police. During that street battle, Dzhokhar inadvertently ran over and killed Tamerlan.
Dzhokhar was arrested the next day after being found hiding in a boat in a backyard. Subsequently, a federal grand jury indicted Dzhokhar for 30 crimes, including 17 capital offenses. The District Court sentenced Dzhokhar to death. However, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated Dzhokhar’s capital sentence. This matter then went before the Supreme Court.
II. JURY SELECTION PROCESS
The District Court adopted almost all of the parties’ proposed 100-question form to screen prospective jurors. Several questions inquired as to whether media coverage might have biased a prospective juror. One question asked if the prospective juror had “formed an opinion” about the case because of what he had “seen or read in the news media.” Other questions asked about the source, amount, and timing of the person’s media consumption.
The District Court rejected one media-related question. The proposed question asked each prospective juror to list the facts they had learned about the case from the media and other sources. The District Court declined to include it in the questionnaire because the court was concerned that such a broad, “unfocused” question would “cause trouble” by producing “unmanageable data” of minimal value that would come to dominate the entire jury selection process.
The District Court summoned 1,373 prospective jurors for the first round of jury selection. After reviewing the prospective jurors’ answers to the questionnaire, the court reduced the pool to 256. The District Court allowed Dzhokhar’s attorneys to follow up on a prospective juror’s earlier answers in the questionnaire or at voir dire with specific questions about what the juror had seen or heard in the news.
Over the course of three weeks of in-person questioning, the District Court and the parties reduced the 256 prospective jurors down to 12 seated jurors. After the District Court seated the jury, the case went to trial. Dzhokhar did not contest his guilt, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts.
III. COURT OF APPEALS DECISION
The Court of Appeals vacated Dzhokhar’s capital sentence on two grounds. One of those grounds involved the jury selection process. In this regard, the Court of Appeals held that the District Court abused its discretion during jury selection by declining to ask every prospective juror what they learned from the media about the case. The panel found that such questions were required by the court’s 1968 decision in Patriarca v. United States, 402 F. 2d 314 (CA1). Thus, failure to comply with Patriarca was “an error of law and so an abuse of discretion.”
IV. FOP AMICUS BRIEF ADDRESSES JURY SELECTION
In June 2021, Crabbe, Brown & James Managing Partner Larry H. James, as General Counsel to the National Fraternal Order of Police (“FOP”), filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner, the United States of America. The FOP requested that the Supreme Court reverse the First Circuit’s “high-profile case” rule. Specifically, the FOP’s amicus brief highlighted the District Court’s extensive and thorough voir dire process. Additionally, the FOP pointed out that in “high-profile” cases, trial courts need broad discretion because lengthy and extensive voir dire can confuse the jury.
V. SUPREME COURT DECISION FINDS THE DISTRICT COURT’S JURY SELECTION PROCESS WAS REASONABLE
The Supreme Court found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by declining to ask prospective jurors about the content and extent of each juror’s media consumption regarding the bombings. The Supreme Court cited the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees “the accused” the right to a trial “by an impartial jury.” However, the Supreme Court recognized that the right to an “impartial” jury does not require ignorance. Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 381 (2010). The Supreme Court found that based on “years” of trial experience, the District Court reasonably concluded that jurors who came in with some prior knowledge would still be able to act impartially and “hold the government to its proof.”
Further, the Supreme Court found that jury selection falls within the province of the trial judge. A trial court’s broad discretion in this area includes deciding what questions to ask prospective jurors. The District Court recognized the significant pretrial publicity concerning the bombings, and reasonably concluded that the proposed media-content question was “unfocused,” risked producing “unmanageable data,” and would at best shed light on “preconceptions” that other questions already probed.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the District Court’s jury selection process was both reasonable and consistent with precedent.