Jury selection in Boston bombing trial moves into arduous phase

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Jury selection in Boston bombing trial moves into arduous phase
Prosecutors want panels of the boat in which Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding to be brought to court to show jurors what they say is his written confession. His lawyers want them to see the entire bullet-ridden boat.
In this handout provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, a collection of fireworks that was found inside a backpack that belonged to Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev taken on an unspecified date and place. The backpack was recovered by law enforcement agents from a landfill in New Bedford, Massachusetts on April 26, 2013. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is believed to have bought fireworks from a New Hampshire store in February and authorities are trying to determine whether gunpowder from the fireworks were used in the bombs. Today authorities arrested three additional men in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings. Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev who are alleged to have tried to conceal and destroy evidence to help the Tsarnaev brothers after the attacks, came to America to study at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was also enrolled. The third person taken into custody is Robel Phillipos a U.S. citizen who is charged with lying to federal agents. (Photo by DOJ via Getty Images)
Defense Attorney Robert Stahl, left, guides Murat Kadyrbayev across the street outside of the Moakley Courthouse after they left his son, Dias Kadyrbayev's U.S. District Court hearing in Boston on August 13, 2013. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Robel Phillipos, of Cambridge, arrived with attorneys, family and friends at the Moakley Federal Courthouse. He is accused of lying to investigators. Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov face obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping Tsarnaev hide evidence after the Boston Marathon bombings were also present at court. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Robert G. Stahl of the Law Offices of Robert G. Stahl, LLC, defending Dias Kadyrbayev, spoke with the media as he walked, after leaving the courthouse. Two men from Kazakhstan and a man from Cambridge were arrested and charged today in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston, Mass. on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Robel Phillipos, 20, one of four former classmates of Dzhokhar (Jahar) Tsarnaev to face federal charges related to the Marathon bombing, leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse on October 6, 2014. The charges that they face, though not all the same, relate to the night of April 18, 2013, a few days after the bombing when photos of the two Tsarnaev brothers were publicized by the FBI and the pair was on the run. Phillipos, the only one free on bail. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Derege B. Demissie of Demissie & Church, defending Robel Phillipos, walked out of the courthouse. Two men from Kazakhstan and a man from Cambridge were arrested and charged today in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston, Mass. on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Robel Phillipos, of Cambridge, arrived with attorneys, family and friends at the Moakley Federal Courthouse. He is accused of lying to investigators. Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov face obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping Tsarnaev hide evidence after the Boston Marathon bombings were also present at court. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Newspapers in New York report on the Boston Marathon bombing
Newspapers at a newsstand in New York report on the Boston Marathon bombers
BOSTON - JANUARY 6: A Boston Police boat tied up to a pier behind the Moakley Courthouse, where the second day of jury selection took place in the upcoming trial of Dzohkhar Tsarnaev on January 6, 2015. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 5: Jury selection for the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber started at Moakley Federal Court. A heavily armed Coast Guard boat patrolled the water off of the courthouse. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 5: Jury selection for the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber started at Moakley Federal Court. A heavy police presence was seen outside the courthouse. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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BOSTON (Reuters) - Jury selection for the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will move into a more difficult phase on Wednesday after the court wraps up its initial screening of 1,200 candidates summoned to appear this week.

The field needs to be winnowed down to 12 jurors and six alternates, a challenge made all the greater by the possibility of the death penalty if Tsarnaev, 21, is convicted.

Federal law requires that all jurors chosen be willing to consider voting to put the ethnic Chechen to death, a limited population in a state that has not seen an execution in more than a half-century and where a majority of residents say they oppose the death penalty.

As he addressed each group of jurors to report to court this week, U.S. District Judge George O'Toole underlined the complexity of the task the jury will face. Tsarnaev is charged with killing three people and injuring more than 260 in the April 15, 2013 attack and with shooting dead a university police officer three days later.

"Usually, after a jury has convicted a defendant of a crime, the presiding judge decides on what the punishment should be," O'Toole told prospective jurors. "If, after trial, he is convicted of any of these crimes ... it is the responsibility of the jury, and not the judge, to decide whether Mr. Tsarnaev is to be sentenced to death."

It has been more than 30 years since Massachusetts lawmakers abolished the death penalty for crimes prosecuted in state courts. The last execution in Massachusetts was in 1947 when a pair of men convicted of murdering a former Marine died in the electric chair.

The jury hearing Tsarnaev's trial will be the third in Massachusetts to consider a death penalty case in recent decades. In 2001, a jury found a nurse guilty of killing patients but did not sentence her to die.

In 2003, a jury sentenced admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson to death, but that decision was overturned in 2011 after a judge found one of the jurors had lied during the screening process. Sampson is still awaiting a second trial to determine if he will face execution.

The knowledge that an error in the jury selection process can lead to a jury's decision being thrown out is powerful motivation for any judge to move carefully.

"It's a difficult enough process as it is," said David Weinstein, an attorney in private practice who in prior jobs as a state and federal prosecutor brought death-penalty cases. "The whole rest of the trial could be clean and if there was one error early on in jury selection, there's a risk it could all get turned around."

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Monthslong Death Case Begins

VIEWS CHANGE ON DEATH

The passions that surround the attack, which saw bombs rip through a crowd of hundreds of people at the finish line of the city's best-attended sporting event, claiming victims including an 8-year-old boy, could sway potential jurors who normally oppose the death penalty.

"There are going to be some people who say, 'Generally, I'm not in favor of the death penalty but if it's an ordinary crime, but this is no ordinary crime,'" said John Blume, director of Cornell University's Death Penalty Project.

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who throughout his two decades in office had opposed the death penalty, told reporters a week after the attack that he would reconsider for this case.

He was not alone. An April 2014 poll by the University of Massachusetts found that while 37 percent of residents supported the death penalty in general, 59 percent of respondents approved of executing Tsarnaev if he is found guilty.

As lawyers examine the juror questionnaires filled out this week, one of their first goals will be to exclude those who have an unwavering opposition to capital punishment or who have already determined that Tsarnaev should be put to death.

They will also seek to eliminate potential jurors with a close connection to the case, those who were present at the blast site or who had close friends who were injured.

After that, the court will begin next Thursday going through the time-consuming process of interviewing jurors in person, with O'Toole planning on seeing 40 per day. That process could well extend past his initial goal of starting testimony by Jan. 26, legal experts said.

"That seems unrealistically short," Blume said. "Three weeks, to me, would be maybe enough in an ordinary capital case, but I don't see this as an ordinary case."

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