Can Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev get a Fair and Impartial Trial in Boston?
Defense attorneys filed repeated motions for a change of venue, claiming massive news coverage of the April 2013 marathon bombings makes selecting an impartial jury impossible. Tsarnaev stands trial for his alleged role in the double bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 causing three deaths and over 260 injuries, many of them loss of limbs.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides every defendant in a criminal trial the right of trial by an impartial jury. An impartial jury is defined as a jury capable of deciding the facts solely on the evidence before it.
Qualifying as an impartial juror requires that the individual not have views or personal experiences that will prevent or substantially impair his or her ability to decide a matter based solely on the evidence.
Attorneys for the alleged Boston bomber claimed that the extent of pretrial publicity blanketing the Boston area so tainted the prospective jury pool that achieving an impartial jury was impossible.
What is Impartiality?
In the horse and buggy days, when the world was not tied together with instantaneous information sharing, shipping the trial of a case from one city to the next solved the problem. Boston Marathon bombing news travelled around the world. The runners come from all corners of the planet. So the issue is not whether a potential juror saw or heard a news report. The question is whether, despite receiving information about the case, that juror can still arrive at a fair decision based only on evidence admitted at trial.
“The underlying events and the case itself have received national media attention. It is doubtful whether a jury could be selected anywhere in the country whose members were wholly unaware of the Marathon bombings. … The Constitution does not obligate them to be … It is sufficient if the juror can lay aside his impression or opinion and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court.”
U.S. District Court Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr.
Trials may be moved in a change of venue if extraordinary local prejudice will prevent a fair trial. But if screening of potential jurors in what’s called voir dire indicates jurors will base their thinking only on the evidence, then the trial can proceed in the original jurisdiction.
The judge in the suspected Boston bomber’s case instructed the jury pool to “change channel” if the Tsarnaev case comes on TV. He also warned against doing any individual online research about the case. He also told them not the post their experiences as jurors on social media including Twitter or Facebook.
Will the Alleged Boston Bomber’s Trial be Televised?
No. That’s the way it is under federal court rules. TV cameras, radio microphones and photographers are banned from all U.S. District Courts. So, old fashioned sketches by courtroom artists will provide the only visual impressions to the public of courtroom proceedings.
Advocates of bringing cameras into the courtroom have pushed the U.S. Judicial Conference to change the rules. But with very few exceptions, including a pilot program allowing cameras into the federal appeals court in the Ninth Circuit, the ban is firmly in place in all U.S. District Courts.
Resistance to allowing cameras in federal courts runs deep. Then Supreme Court Justice David Souter is quoted saying the first camera in federal courts will “roll over my dead body.” Then there’s this:
“There are some people who want to make us part of the national entertainment network.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy
Others point out that nearly 50% of state courts allow cameras in court. In 30 years of coverage of high profile murder and other grizzly cases, “the republic still stands.” Harvard law professor Nancy Gertner, a federal judge for 17 years also points out that the new Boston federal courthouse like most newer court building have numerous security cameras built into the walls. So, she claims the idea that cameras in courtroom would be intrusive of the proceeding is absurd.
Photo Credit: Boston Marathon – 10, by Megan Marrs on Flickr. License.
For a case offering an extensive summary of the law on change of venue see U.S. v. Gary Sampson, 820 F.Supp.2d 151 (D.Mass. 2011).
Attorney Andrew D. Myers is a personal injury attorney and bankruptcy attorney practicing in Massachusetts and New Hampshire who often writes on other areas of the law.