What Are the Stages of a Death Penalty Case?
A jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all counts regarding his involvement in the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon. But the case isn't over yet, and the jury's work isn't finished.
Seventeen of the 30 charges for which Tsarnaev was convicted carry a possible death penalty, so now that jurors have found him guilty, they must decide whether to impose that penalty or life in prison. Let's take a look at these separate stages of capital punishment cases and how they work.
The Guilt Phase
The first part of the Boston bombing trial, the guilt phase, was like that of any other criminal (jury) trial, which itself is broken into phases:
- Jury Selection: Both sides and the judge interview jurors to whittle the pool down to the necessary size.
- Opening Statements: Each side previews the evidence and what they think the evidence will prove.
- Presentation of Evidence: Each side presents evidence, including witness testimony and cross-examination.
- Closing Arguments: Each side reviews the evidence and argues why it proves their case.
- Jury Instruction: The judge explains the applicable law to the jury (though in Tsarnaev's case, instructions were given before closing arguments).
- Jury Deliberation and Verdict: The jury weighs the evidence and decides whether the defendant is guilty.
The guilt phase for Tsarnaev was unique in one important way -- his attorneys never argued his guilt. The defense admitted Tsarnaev's culpability in the bombing, and even said "It was him," during their opening statements. Given the overwhelming evidence against him, the strategy was to deflect as much of the blame onto his brother, Tamerlan, in the hopes that the jury would be more lenient during the next phase.
The Sentencing Phase
Tsarnaev's trial is a federal capital case, and like most death penalty cases has a sentencing phase where jurors decide a guilty party's punishment. Normally, a judge determines criminal sentences based on several sentencing factors.
In many capital cases, however, the jury decides whether the convicted party will receive the death penalty. As with then guilt phase, attorneys from both sides will present evidence, but this time the issue will be the appropriate punishment.
Jurors may consider several factors during the sentencing phase, mostly regarding the nature of the crime and the defendant. If the jury does not vote for the death penalty (and in some jurisdictions the vote must be unanimous), the defendant will likely be sentenced instead to life in prison.
Tsarnaev's sentencing trial will likely begin early next week, and it's hard to tell how long it will last and how long the jury will deliberate before issuing its second verdict.
- Need to Know: Closing Arguments in Boston Marathon Bombing Trial (FindLaw Blotter)
- Jodi Arias Case: What Is a Sentencing Mistrial? (FindLaw Blotter)
- Death Penalty Reversed in Killing of Dave Navarro's Mother (FindLaw's California Case Law)
- For James Holmes, Death Penalty is Far from a Certainty (FindLaw Blotter)
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