Tsarnaev jurors asked about everything from siblings to social media

The US District Court released the 28-page questionnaire handed to more than 1,300 potential jurors in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, with questions on the US war on terror and potential jurors' social media habits.

Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters
A courtroom sketch shows accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in court on the second day of his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston March 5. Tsarnaev is accused of killing three people and injuring 264 with a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs on April 15, 2013 at the Boston Marathon finish line.

Almost three months since jury selection began in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the questionnaires handed out to more than 1,300 potential jurors have been released by the US District Court.

And while the jury selection process finished several weeks ago — the trial is now in its third week — the unfilled questionnaires provide some interesting insight into how the prosecution and defense teams in the trial have been trying to establish and support their arguments. The questionnaires also offer a glimpse into how unusual the Tsarnaev trial is, with questions about everything from sibling relations to social media.

“These questions clearly relate to what at least the court (with likely input from the parties) believed would be the defense strategy,” says Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “[The questions are] rather wide-ranging and seem to show foresight into the strategy.”

Tsarnaev is accused of killing three people and injuring more than 260 with a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The full questionnaire is 28 pages long and includes 100 questions. These are, thematically, some of the most interesting questions potential jurors had to answer:

1) Questions on sibling connections and dynamics 

Several questions asked jurors to identify if older siblings in general could easily influence younger siblings, and they were also asked if they were personally influenced by their siblings, and if anyone had ever tried to influence their important life decisions.

These questions appear to align with the ongoing defense strategy to distinguish the roles of Mr. Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, in the 2013 bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a stand-off with police in Watertown on April 19, 2013. The defense hope that if they can persuade the jury that Dzokhar Tsarnaev was pressured into carrying out the bombings by his older, radicalized brother — in particular through peer pressure and intimidation — then the jury may spare him the death penalty.

17. “Have any of your siblings tried to influence your direction in life or your major life decisions?”

18. “Have you tried to influence any of your siblings’ direction in life or major life decisions?”

19. “Do you feel that any of your siblings has had a major positive or negative influence on you?”

20. “Do you believe most teenagers are easily influenced by older siblings?”

But these questions are unusual for a typical juror questionnaire, according to Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

“[It’s] sort of strange when you consider that people's relationships with their siblings really run the gamut. It's hard to imagine that you'd acknowledge on a questionnaire details about close family dynamics, some of which are subtle and complex and some of which we are ourselves not even aware of,” says Professor Cavallaro in an e-mail to the Monitor.

“I suppose the defense would be pleased that those kinds of questions were included, but I would be surprised if they revealed very much,” she adds. “Presumably those questions are there because the defense theory is that that the defendant's family dynamics were so intense that they compelled the defendant to commit the crime he is charged with. But it is hard to imagine that a potential juror would be very forthcoming about tension with siblings or his or her own perception that a sibling had influenced or bullied them.”

2) Questions about Islam and US foreign policy

Several questions asked potential jurors about their personal knowledge and connections to Islam and Muslims, as well as their opinions on US foreign policy in the Middle East and the war on terror.

Some questions asked potential jurors if they have “interactions” with Muslims and if they have “strongly held thoughts or opinions about Muslims or about Islam.” 

Other questions also focused on US policy in the Middle East and the war on terror, as well as US immigration policy and how it relates to Islam:

60. “Do you believe the United States government acts unfairly towards Muslims in this country or in other parts of the world?”

61. “Do you believe the ‘war on terror’ unfairly targets Muslims?”

62. “Do you believe the ‘war on terror’ is overblown or exaggerated?”

64. “Do you believe that our government allows too many Muslims, or too many people from Muslim countries, to immigrate legally to the United States?”

Cavallaro said she found the questions on the war on terror “somewhat surprising.” 

“I would expect a questionnaire to probe juror attitudes about the religion and ethnicity of the defendant in this case, but it is unusual to also probe attitudes about American foreign policy,” she adds. “Even the term ‘war on terror’ is a loaded one and might provoke responses depending on individual juror attitudes and political opinions.”

3) Questions about exposure to social media and media coverage

Several questions near the end of the questionnaire also focused on the potential juror’s use of social media, as well as how much media coverage of the Marathon bombings and the Tsarnaev trial they had been following. One question asked potential jurors to list all the social media they use and how frequently they use each one. Another question asked them what their primary source of news is, and another question asked them to describe the amount of media coverage they have seen about the case.

One of the final questions — and one of the questions most often revisited throughout the jury selection process — then asked potential jurors if they’d already formed an opinion on Tsarnaev’s guilt.

77. “As a result of what you have seen or read in the news media, or what you have learned or already know about the case from any source, have you formed an opinion: 

  1. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty?
  2. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not guilty?
  3. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty?
  4. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should not receive the death penalty?)

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, would you be able or unable to set aside your opinion and base your decision about guilt and punishment solely on the evidence that will be presented to you in court?”

Cavallaro says she found the questions on how jurors engage in social media “interesting and somewhat novel.”

“[It reflects] the fact that social media might eclipse traditional media in terms of their potential impact on juror attitudes,” she adds. “The concern is that jurors might be influenced by these sources, both traditional media and social media, and the purpose of the questionnaire is to identify those potential biases before trial.”

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