How Boston bombing trial affects cases in Baltimore, Charleston

Should the Boston bombing trial have been moved? In many ways, yes, experts say. But the result also suggested that a 'local' trial can be done fairly.

Jane Flavell Collins via AP
In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (r.) stands before US District Judge George O'Toole as he addresses the court during his sentencing on Wednesday in federal court in Boston. Tsarnaev apologized to the victims and their loved ones for the first time, just before the judge formally sentenced him to death.

The day two bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line, turning a springtime festival into something close to a war zone, is something the city will never forget.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the young man convicted of carrying out the bombing, is likely to persist in memory. A jury sentenced him to death last month, exactly 25 months to the day after the bombing occurred. While a lengthy appeals process still lies ahead, the judge that presided over his trial said that Mr. Tsarnaev will only ever be remembered for one thing: the bombing on April 15, 2013, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

The Tsarnaev trial itself could have a lasting impact, however, in future high-profile cases around the country.

Perhaps the closest analogue to the Tsarnaev trial – the 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – was moved to Denver, Colo., on the grounds that he wouldn't receive a fair trial in Oklahoma. Tsarnaev's lawyers called for the same treatment. They filed three separate motions calling for a change of venue before the trial began, citing widespread media coverage of the bombings and their aftermath, which included a citywide lockdown while law enforcement searched for Tsarnaev. Judge O'Toole denied all three motions.

Judge O'Toole's decision is something "I guarantee we’re going to be talking about in the coming years," says Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

And he says it may only be a matter of months before a similar debate is happening over a similarly high-profile case. Lawyers for six Baltimore police officers facing charges related to the death of Freddie Gray while in their custody could also make a strong case for a change of venue.

The officers were indicted by a grand jury in May, and a trial date has been set for Oct. 13, The Baltimore Sun reported. One officer is charged with second-degree murder, while three are charged with manslaughter. All of them have pleaded not guilty.

"Whether that [trial] will be held in a different part of the state or not will be a really interesting issue," says Professor Medwed.

The Baltimore case is similar to the Tsarnaev trial, he adds, because Mr. Gray's death in late April triggered protests around the city. Some protests turned violent, prompting officials to declare a state of emergency and a one-week curfew.

"That means every single person in Baltimore was affected by this incident," says Medwed. "Even if they had no relationship, even if they had nothing to do with the riots, they were all affected by that curfew."

"The question is can you find a jury that hasn’t already made up its mind," he adds. "In cases that are highly publicized ... like the Boston Marathon bombing, it’s really hard."

Evidence for a change of venue in the Tsarnaev trial was "overwhelming," says David Hoose, a defense attorney in Northampton, Mass., who specializes in death penalty cases.

"All of us in the greater Boston area was a victim [of the bombings], and that made it impossible to get a fair trial in the metropolitan Boston area," he adds. "If this is upheld [on appeal], I think you can say in a practical way that there is no such thing as a change of venue [motion] in federal law anymore."

But the Tsarnaev trial also helped prove that an exhaustive jury selection process can help ensure the fair trial of a high-profile crime in the community where the crime occurred. The benefits of keeping a trial in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred can be both symbolic and practical. The families of some Oklahoma City bombing victims said the relocation of that trial made it more difficult for them to attend.

The jury selection process for the Tsarnaev trial was almost unprecedented in scale. O'Toole selected an 18-person panel of 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of more than 1,200 prospective jurors from around eastern Massachusetts, thinned down through questionnaires and personal interviews with the judge, a process known as "voir dire." Each juror had to convince O'Toole that they would be impartial despite any prior knowledge they may have of the case, and that they would be willing to impose the death penalty, if appropriate.

A federal appeals court upheld the decision to keep the trial in Boston in a split 2-to-1 decision in late February. In that ruling, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch and Circuit Judge Jeffrey Howard wrote that the public will always have extensive knowledge of a high-profile case, but that public knowledge “does not equate to disqualifying prejudice.”

Once a judge has ruled that a trial won't be moved, it's a hard decision to overturn on appeal, Medwed admits. Each particular venue question is unique, he adds, and "there’s a lot of deference given to the trial judge in making the decision."

If a judge follows a careful and thorough voir dire process, venue changes are especially hard to achieve, says Michael Kendall, a former federal prosecutor in Boston.

"It may be a difficult venue to get impartial jurors, but if the jurors picked are impartial, then you really don’t have a problem," he says.

The trial of James Holmes – the man charged with killing 12 people and wounding 70 during a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. – went ahead in the local Arapahoe County court after the judge impaneled a jury from a pool of 9,000 people, reportedly the largest jury pool in United States history.

Venue issues are raised "all the time," adds Mr. Kendall. "It’s a tough issue to win, but it’s not a tough issue to raise."

Having the trial in Boston, at location of the actual bombing, and doing it thoroughly and meticulously, as the US attorney’s office did, should allay any concerns that these trials cannot be [held] in the jurisdictions where they occurred," says Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.

"I think most people would agree that a just result was returned," he adds.

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