The defense team representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man accused of placing two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon with his brother Tamerlan, requested a change of venue Wednesday for Tsarnaev’s trial, scheduled to begin in November. The attorneys cited a defense expert’s survey that indicated almost 60 percent of Boston’s population believes Tsarnaev is “definitely guilty” in the case.
Tsarnaev, who allegedly placed the bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 and participated in a police shootout days later that resulted in the death of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Department Officer Sean Collier, has pleaded not guilty to the 30 federal charges against him. Other charges include use of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, destruction of public property, carrying a firearm and carjacking.
“To be sure, a presumption of prejudice will only arise in the extreme case,” the defense wrote in their motion for a change of venue. “But this is such a case.”
The defense argued their survey, conducted by an expert who has performed more than 100 similar analyses in state and federal cases, reveals “an overwhelming presumption of guilt in the District of Massachusetts” and a prejudgment that, if convicted, Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty. These conditions, they argue, leave Boston unfit for a fair and impartial trial of Tsarnaev.
In their motion, the defense holds that the prevalence of members of the jury pool who attended and participated in 2013’s Marathon, or know someone who did, combined with the “sustained intense” media coverage of the event and the following manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers overexposed potential members of the jury to Tsarnaev’s case.
Tsarnaev’s defense expert also conducted surveys in Springfield, New York and Washington to compare potential jury pools’ prejudice and prejudgment of the Marathon Bombing case.
After finding that about 37 percent of those surveyed in Washington believed Tsarnaev was “definitely guilty” – the lowest percentage of the four districts surveyed – the defense preliminarily requested to move the trial to the nation’s capital, though they insisted they have not completed their analysis of survey data.
“An accurate and reliable assessment of the influence of both the publicity and the impact of the offenses on the ability of Massachusetts jurors to provide a fair trial – an influence reflected in the preliminary survey data – requires the full evidentiary record and expert analysis that we have requested but have not yet obtained,” the defense wrote in their motion.
The defense has also asked for additional funding and time to further analyze survey data and more accurately assess the need to change the venue for Tsarnaev’s hearing.
The prosecution has yet to respond to Tsarnaev’s request for a change of venue.
In a status conference Wednesday morning, presiding U.S. District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. said he would not allow the prosecution to argue Tsarnaev’s alleged “betrayal of the United States” – rooted in taking an oath to become a naturalized citizen – as grounds for the death penalty if he is convicted. He dismissed that argument as prejudicial and inappropriate.
The defense has asked the Court to establish a timeline over which they can prepare “adequate factual support” for their motion and recommendations of alternative venues, which they repeatedly insisted in their ten-page motion they could not have gathered at this point.
The next status conference for Tsarnaev’s trial is scheduled for Aug. 14.