April 22, 2013

Earlier cases could set precedent

Although comparatively heinous acts don't always result in the death penalty, convictions are probable.

Bloomberg News

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In a photo provided by amateur photographer and Taunton, Mass., resident Bob Leonard, suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are clearly visible in the background, side by side and wearing baseball caps.

Bob Leonard/The Associated Press

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For complete coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt, click here.

Authorities said they believe the two bombing suspects were acting alone and haven't found connections to any groups or other suspects

The brothers are ethnic Chechens, said their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an amateur boxer and a Muslim who trained at a gym in the Allston section of Brighton and told friends, "I'm very religious," according to an account by Johannes Hirn, a freelance photographer who profiled him.

Federal death penalty prosecutions, unlike many state cases, require a rigorous vetting at the highest levels of the Justice Department -- a months-long process that often results in a decision to seek only a life sentence.

Any cases that include potential capital punishment crimes will be reviewed by local federal prosecutors and eventually by the U.S. attorney general and his deputies. They also hear from defense lawyers before making the final determination to seek death, said Morris Fodeman, a former federal prosecutor who persuaded a Brooklyn, New York, jury to vote to execute Ronell Wilson, a New York man convicted of killing a New York City police detective.

Additionally, all death penalty cases require a second trial, a so-called penalty phase, where jurors are asked to decide on whether a convicted defendant deserves life in prison or death, by weighing mitigating and aggravating factors.

On April 19, Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined to say after the capture of Tsarnaev whether she would seek the death penalty, alluding to the complex process by which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder makes the final decision.

Another factor is often whether a defendant decides to plead guilty rather than force a trial.

Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, a former University of California at Berkeley math professor, used mail bombs to kill the three people and injure 23 from 1978 and 1995 in a terror campaign against technology. He pleaded guilty in 1998 and is serving a life sentence.

And in the attack that perhaps bears the most similarity to the Boston bombing, on an early July morning in 1996, a backpack with three pipe bombs encircled by nails exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the Olympics. That terrorist act killed one person and injured more than 100.

Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched the home of the security guard who discovered the bomb moments before the blast. Investigators later tied the attack to Eric Rudolph through an analysis of bomb elements, including an alarm clock and steel plate. Rudolph, who was arrested in 2003, pleaded guilty.

He too is serving a life term, alongside Yousef, Nichols and Kaczynski.


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