Boston bomber will get chance to break silence at sentencing
Boston — Will he finally speak?
Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have said he feels remorse for the deadly attack, but the public has never heard directly from him. When he is formally sentenced Wednesday to death, he will be given an opportunity to address the court, but it’s not clear if he’ll take it.
Legal experts say Tsarnaev, 21, has little or nothing to gain by speaking since the judge is required to impose the death sentence recommended by the jury. Some wonder, though, whether he could decide to apologize or even make a political statement.
The 2013 twin bombings carried out by Tsarnaev and his late brother killed three people and injured more than 260, including 18 people who lost legs. The brothers also killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer days later.
In a message Tsarnaev scrawled inside a boat he hid in before he was captured, Tsarnaev said the attack was meant as retaliation against the U.S. for its actions in Muslim countries. During his trial, a Roman Catholic nun who visited Tsarnaev in prison said he expressed sympathy for the victims of the bombings.
“He said emphatically, ‘No one deserves to suffer like they did,’” said Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch death penalty opponent made famous in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.”
Tsarnaev’s lawyers told the jury those words show that Tsarnaev is sorry for what he did, but some experts said it is impossible to know what he meant, given his impassive demeanor throughout the trial.
“He’s somewhat of an enigma at this point. No one really knows what he will do,” said attorney David Hoose, who represented veterans hospital nurse Kristen Gilbert in her 2003 federal death penalty trial for killing four patients. Gilbert received a life sentence.
More than 20 bombing victims are expected to speak during Tsarnaev’s sentencing hearing, including family members of those who died and people who were injured in the explosions.
Hoose said he can’t see any legal advantage for Tsarnaev to speak.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by it at this point. Whatever would be said, I think, would be viewed as too little, too late,” Hoose said.
New York Law School professor Robert Blecker, a death penalty advocate, said any expression of remorse would not affect Tsarnaev’s sentence or his planned appeal but could help him if he decides to seek a commutation of his death sentence from the president.
“If he desperately wanted to save his life and he were willing to express it now and then show a consistent pattern of remorse and good behavior, he would significantly strengthen his case later on,” Blecker said.
President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence of David Ronald Chandler, the first person sentenced to death under the 1988 federal law that allowed capital punishment in drug-related killings. A gunman who said Chandler — an Alabama marijuana dealer — paid him $500 to kill another man later recanted his testimony. Clinton commuted his sentence to life without parole.
Blecker said any speech by Tsarnaev would not jeopardize his appeal, which is likely to focus on an unsuccessful defense bid to move the trial because of the large number of people who knew someone connected to the marathon and the emotional impact the attack had in Massachusetts.
The defense made it clear from the first day of the trial that its goal was not to win an acquittal but to save Tsarnaev’s life. “It was him,” attorney Judy Clarke said in opening statements, admitting Tsarnaev participated in the bombings.
For Tsarnaev’s lawyers, the danger of him speaking is that it could backfire if he makes a political statement seeking to justify the bombings.
“There’s no legal advantage to doing it, and I’m sure he’ll be advised not to,” said Robert Sheketoff, a Boston attorney who represented Gary Lee Sampson, who was sentenced to death after carjacking and killing two Massachusetts men and killing a third man in New Hampshire in 2001. Sampson’s death sentence was later overturned; he faces a new sentencing trial in September.
Only three people have been executed under the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
In a brief statement during his sentencing hearing, McVeigh didn’t express remorse but instead quoted a dissenting opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a wiretapping case: “Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”
“That’s all I have,” McVeigh said.
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