Friday, October 08, 2021

Fall 2021 SCOTUS in the Classroom Case: United States v. Tsarnaev

We are excited to announce our first SCOTUS in the Classroom case of the October 21 Term: United States v. Tsarnaev. This high-profile case will decide whether the death sentences of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can be reinstated.

United States v. Tsarnaev presents an opportunity to teach about the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment, how mitigating factors influence sentencing, the Sixth Amendment's guarantee to an impartial jury, and the impact of media on juries.

Oral arguments in this case will take place in-person in the Supreme Court building on October 13, 2021, and will be broadcast LIVE.

Case materials and resources are available on the SCOTUS in the Classroom program page. Teachers are encouraged to hold moot courts or mini-moot courts of the case the same weeks that the Supreme Court hears arguments, giving students the opportunity to follow discussion and analysis in the news and listen to or read a transcript of the actual oral arguments at the Court. You can find instructions and handouts for conducting a moot court in our newly revised free Classroom Guide to Moot Courts.


On April 15, 2013, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and severely wounded many others. In the days that followed, the Tsarnaev brothers killed a police officer and hijacked an SUV. When confronted by police, Tamerlan charged the police who wrestled him to the ground. Dzhokhar fled in the SUV, running over and killing his brother.

There was extensive media coverage of the events and social media was flooded with posts about the "Boston Marathon bombers." Several victims and their family members, politicians, and celebrities called for the death penalty on television and social media.

During the investigation one of the brothers' friends was questioned. He told police that on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, he was with Tamerlan, who slit the throats of three people with intentions of stealing money to support jihad. 

Prospective jurors were asked questions about their primary source of news and how much publicity they had seen about the case in general. The defense wanted the jury pool to write out what they knew about the facts of the case from the media, but the judge refused. 

At his trial Dzhokhar conceded guilt and was convicted of 30 offenses. The judge did not allow evidence about the triple homicide to be introduced during the sentencing phase. The jury recommended the death penalty for the six counts relating to the murders resulting from the bomb Dzhokhar detonated. The jury imposed life-imprisonment sentences for the other charges.

Tsarnaev appealed the capital punishment convictions on two grounds: 1) the judge did not permit the defense to ask each individual potential juror about the content of the news coverage they saw; and 2) the judge excluded testimony about Tamerlan's possible involvement in a triple homicide as a mitigating factor. The Court of Appeals upheld 27 convictions, reversed three convictions, and dismissed the six capital sentences, ordering another sentencing hearing.

The important questions presented in this case are:

  1. Did the U.S. Court of Appeals err when it vacated (dismissed) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentences on the ground that the District Court during voir dire did not ask each prospective juror for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage that they had read heard or seen about Tsarnaev's case?
  2. Did the U.S. Court of Appeals err in concluding that the District Court should have admitted evidence at the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial that Tsarnaev's older brother, Tamerlan, was allegedly involved in different crimes two years before the offenses for which Tsarnaev was convicted?

SCOTUS in the Classroom is made possible by the support of the Supreme Court Historical Society

Image: Wooden gavel.