Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two Chechen-Americans accused of carrying out last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
“The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement, setting the stage for what could become one of the most prominent death penalty prosecutions in decades.
Only three executions have been carried out under the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988, though dozens have been convicted of capital crimes.
Federal authorities believe Mr. Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother Tamerlan, 26, worked together in plotting and executing the attack in which homemade pressure-cooker bombs were stuffed into backpacks that exploded 13 seconds apart near the marathon’s finish line in downtown Boston last April.
Three people were killed and more than 260 injured by the blasts, which set in motion a massive manhunt by federal and local authorities in and around Boston.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom authorities believe masterminded and led his younger brother in the plot, died during an ensuring shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was wounded during the shootout, but escaped and was later discovered hiding in a boat in Watertown, Mass.
In addition to federal terrorism charges, he also stands accused in of the death of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot during the Tsarnaev brothers’ attempted getaway.
The younger Mr. Tsarnaev, 20, has reportedly admitted to the bombing attack, though he has pleaded not guilty to all 30 charges lodged against him. Seventeen of those charges could carry the death penalty if convicted.
“After consideration of the relevant facts, the applicable regulations and the submissions made by the defendant’s counsel, I have determined that the United States will seek the death penalty in this matter,” Mr. Holder said Thursday.
The Boston Marathon bombing sent shock waves throughout the U.S., triggering a new era of fear among citizens and law enforcement of so-called “lone wolf” style terrorist attacks. The bombings also raised questions about American intelligence gathering, the U.S. immigration system and the potential for radicalization of American citizens.
The Tsarnaev family had come to the U.S. as refugees from war-torn areas of Russia. Federal investigators said the two brothers became radicalized by reading the English-language Internet magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and learned how to make improvised explosive devices out of pressure cookers from the publication.
The Tsarnaev case stands to be the most high-profile death penalty prosecution since Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh marked the first federal execution in nearly 40 years when he was put to death by lethal injection in 2001. A veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, McVeigh was driven by a hatred for the American government. In 1995, he detonated an explosives-loaded rental truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Mr. Holder is moving ahead with a capital case against Mr. Tsarnaev even though it will be tried in Massachusetts, a liberal state that does not have capital punishment, which may make seating a jury more difficult than it would otherwise be.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said Thursday that Mr. Holder had made the right call.
“It is crucial that the United States send a message across the world that terrorists who seek to attack our homeland and bring harm to our citizens will be brought to justice and receive the severest punishment under our laws,” he said in a statement.
Although the death penalty has been authorized for about 500 federal suspects since the maximum punishment was reinstated in 1988, only three offenders have been actually been executed during that time and none in the past decade.