U.S. Supreme Court justices are leaning toward reinstating convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentence for his role in the 2013 attack that killed three people and wounded more than 200.
In more than 90 minutes of arguments, the court's six conservative justices seemed likely to embrace the Justice Department's effort to overturn a lower court ruling that tossed out the death sentence.
The court's three liberal justices asked tough questions of a U.S. administration lawyer who argued that they should reimpose the death penalty for Tsarnaev.
If the appellate ruling were affirmed, Tsarnaev would face a new sentencing trial if the administration decided to continue pressing for a death sentence.
Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen born in Kyrgyzstan, and his brother carried out the bombings in 2013, one of the worst attacks in the United States since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time, and his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the marathon's finish line. Three people were killed and hundreds of others were wounded.
A jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts against him and later determined he deserved to be executed.
But in July 2020 an appeals court ruled that the trial judge "fell short" in screening jurors for potential bias following news coverage of the bombing and ordered a new trial on the sentence, while leaving the conviction intact.
The appeals court accepted arguments that members of the jury had not been questioned enough on their exposure to news coverage of the bombing.
It also agreed that the jury had not been provided vital information that Tsarnaev had allegedly been influenced by his older brother.
The Justice Department launched its appeal of the ruling during then-President Donald Trump's administration and continued it after President Joe Biden took office despite Biden's opposition to the death penalty.
In a filing to the high court, the Justice Department argued that jurors are able to decide a case fairly even if exposed to publicity about it before the trial and it rejected the argument that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been influenced by Tamerlan.
"The record definitively demonstrates that [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] was eager to commit his crimes" and remained proud of his actions, the department said in a court filing.
During the hearing on October 13, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was the only member of the court to raise the Biden administration's pursuit of a capital sentence for Tsarnaev even as it has halted federal executions.
Barrett wondered about the "government's end game," noting that if the administration won the case, Tsarnaev would be "living under a death sentence the government doesn't intend to carry out."
Opposition to the death penalty has increased in the United States, according to polls, which also show a majority of Boston voters favor a life sentence for Tsarnaev.
Some opponents of the death penalty are concerned that the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, could use the Tsarnaev case as a rationale for the execution of others.
Other people have stated that as long as the United States has a federal death penalty, surely the crimes that Tsarnaev committed warrant execution.
The Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling by June 2022.