Tsarnaev judge jettisons 'betrayal' of US as grounds for death penalty

The US district judge in Boston called the prosecution's argument 'obnoxious.' Lawyers for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, meanwhile, filed a motion asking to move the Marathon bombing trial out of Massachusetts.

John Taggart/REUTERS
Police escort residents from their home as they move towards a police assault on a house on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013. The manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, one of two brothers believed to have carried out the Boston Marathon four days prior.

“Betrayal of the United States” is not a legitimate factor in determining whether or not Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, a US district judge ruled Wednesday, adding that the government had other legitimate grounds to seek his execution.

In a court filing in May, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz had cited national “betrayal” as one of the reasons the prosecution was seeking a death sentence. Mr. Tsarnaev “received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people,” read the motion.

US District Judge George O’Toole Jr. called this argument “obnoxious,” and the distinction made by prosecutors between naturalized and native-born citizens “inappropriate.”

“It’s unduly prejudicial, and I will strike it,” he said. “Only the former take an oath.”

Judge O’Toole did not rule out the death penalty altogether, however. He noted that the prosecution had cited several other legitimate reasons for pursuing capital punishment in their filing in May, including Tsarnaev’s alleged lack of remorse and substantial planning and premeditation.

“Aggravating factors that are not obnoxious in that sense are adequate for the government’s purpose,” O’Toole said, according to the Boston Globe.

Also Wednesday, defense lawyers filed a motion asking to move the trial out of Massachusetts, in which they said there is “an overwhelming presumption of guilt” according to a survey they conducted in May.

Massachusetts, where the bombing took place, has a complicated relationship with the death penalty – at least when it comes to Tsarnaev.

In May 2013, shortly after the Marathon bombings, a University of Massachusetts poll found that 59 percent of Bay State residents supported the death penalty for the suspect, while only 50 percent supported capital punishment in general – a number that dropped to 37 percent in a more recent UMass poll this May.

This is a tension present in the rhetoric of many Massachusetts politicians: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem (D), and Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) have all expressed their opposition to the death penalty, but have remained noncommittal on its application to the Tsarnaev case. Mayor Walsh even said he supported the “process” that led US Attorney General Eric Holder to seek the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case, despite his personal opposition to it.

In addition to the death penalty charge, the court Wednesday also discussed allegedly inappropriate interviews granted by investigators and prosecutors to the media, including one by former FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers, who spoke to CBS for a documentary.

Judge O’Toole declined to pass any formal judgments about the matter, but expressed frustration with the prosecution’s conduct.

“I was not very happy about it,” O’Toole said of the television appearances.

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