The Supreme Court agreed today to consider reinstating the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a decision that will test whether President Joe Biden is truly committed to ending federal executions.
Tsarnaev, with his brother Tamerlan, set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. Tamerlan died of injuries sustained in police shootout during the manhunt for the two of them. Dzhokhar was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death in 2015.
Last August, a panel of judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals First Circuit threw out Tsarnaev's death sentence. They determined that the judge overseeing the trial did a terrible job evaluating the jury for bias during the sentencing phase. Two jurors had posted strong opinions about Tsarnaev on social media but were seated anyway. One of them retweeted an observation that called Tsarnaev a "piece of garbage." Nevertheless, the judge allowed her on the jury. So the panel called for a new sentencing trial and jury.
To be clear: There is no chance Tsarnaev will be released. This fight is only about whether he should be executed. The Department of Justice appealed the decision to the Supreme Court under former Attorney General William Barr. Today the court announced it would review the case.
Under Barr, the Department of Justice carried out 13 federal executions, all within the final six months of President Donald Trump's administration. On the campaign trail, Biden declared his opposition to the death penalty and promised to support legislation to end federal executions once and for all.
No federal executions are currently scheduled for 2021. But so far, there's also been little indication that Biden might commute the sentences for the remaining 55 prisoners on death row to life in prison. The president has been silent on the subject since taking office.
There is a bill in circulation to eliminate the federal death penalty. H.R. 262 would end federal executions and order the resentencing of anybody currently on death row. It has 73 cosponsors in the House, all of them Democrats, and a Senate companion bill, also sponsored by Democrats. Nothing has happened with the bill since it was introduced in January.
Now that SCOTUS has agreed to consider Tsarnaev's death sentence, both Biden and his Department of Justice will be forced to decide whether opposition to executions will be an actual policy and not just a campaign bulletpoint.