Facts of the Case

Provided by Oyez

In 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother detonated two homemade pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the race, killing three and injuring hundreds. He was sentenced to death for his role in the bombings, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit threw out his death sentences on the grounds that the district court should have asked potential jurors what media coverage they had seen about Tsarnaev’s case, and the district court should not have excluded from the sentencing phase evidence that Tsarnaev’s brother was involved in a separate triple murder.


  1. Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit err in vacating the death sentence for the district court’s failure to ask prospective jurors for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage they had seen, heard, or read, and for its exclusion of evidence at the sentencing phase of trial that Tsarnaev’s brother had been involved in different crimes two years before the bombing?


  1. The Fifth Circuit improperly vacated Tsarnaev’s capital sentences. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the 6-3 majority opinion of the Court.


    The district court did not abuse its discretion during jury selection when it declined to ask every prospective juror what they learned from the media about the case. The district court has substantial discretion during jury selection, and it was reasonable for the court to conclude that the proposed question wrongly emphasized what a juror knew before coming to court rather than revealing potential bias. The “supervisory authority” of federal courts does not allow them to “create prophylactic supervisory rules that circumvent or supplement legal standards” established by the Supreme Court.

    Additionally, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded from sentencing the evidence that Tsarnaev’s brother was possibly involved in an unsolved triple homicide. A district court has the discretion to exclude evidence “when its probative value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury.” The bare inclusion of this evidence risked producing a “confusing mini-trial” about an unsolved crime in which all witnesses were dead.

    Justice Amy Coney Barrett authored a concurring opinion, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined, noting her skepticism about the “supervisory authority” of federal courts of appeals.

    Justice Stephen Breyer authored a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Breyer argued that the district court abused its discretion by excluding the evidence of the brother’s involvement in the unsolved triple homicide because, in his view, the record does not adequately support the court’s conclusions that the evidence lacks probative value, is insufficient to corroborate the brother’s role in the murders, is a waste of time, and would confuse the jury.