Ruling renews fairness debate in Boston Marathon bomber case

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FILE - In this April 17, 2013 photograph, flowers and signs adorn a barrier, two days after two explosions killed three and injured hundreds, at Boylston Street near the of finish line of the Boston Marathon at a makeshift memorial for victims and survivors of the bombing. A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Friday, July 31, 2020, saying the judge who oversaw the case didn't adequately screen jurors for potential biases. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

“Boston Strong” remains a “vibrant” rallying cry more than seven years after the marathon bombing killed three people and injured more than 260 others, a federal appeals court noted as it threw out the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But even as the ruling opened old wounds, it raised familiar questions about whether Tsarnaev can receive a fair hearing in the city where the bombs exploded — a community that may now be asked to relive unspeakable trauma.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Friday that jurors were not adequately screened for bias ahead of Tsarnaev's 2015 trial, describing media attention in the case as "unrivaled in American legal history.”

The three-judge panel ordered a new penalty phase — this time with more searching questions for prospective jurors — to decide whether the 27-year-old should be executed.

Tsarnaev “will spend his remaining days locked up in prison," the judges made clear, "with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution.”

The Justice Department is expected to appeal. Legal observers predict prosecutors will turn straight to the U.S. Supreme Court without asking for a hearing before the full 1st Circuit. The U.S. government recently resumed federal executions following a 17-year pause and, under President Donald Trump, has pursued capital punishment in an increasing number of cases.

“When it comes to death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has been much more pro-prosecution than many of the circuit courts,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Should Friday's ruling stand, attention will shift to whether an impartial jury can be impaneled in a city still traumatized by the 2013 attack. Tsarnaev's defense team may renew its request to transfer the case out of Boston, where they have long contended public opinion is immutably slanted.