Boston Globe

Jury selection in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev begins this week.

Because prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if Tsarnaev is convicted on any counts that would yield it, the jurors must be "death qualified."

That is the legal term used to describe a juror who will impartially weigh all sentencing options, including execution.

While there are no polls that directly show how many Massachusetts residents categorically oppose the death penalty, other data, as well as past experience in capital trials, suggest finding qualified jurors may prove difficult.

"This is a category of jury selection unto itself," said Robert Corrente, a former Rhode Island federal prosecutor. "There's no analogue to this for any other cases. That’s why you have to start with such an enormous pool to work through."

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Prosecutors plan to screen 1,200 individuals drawn from Massachusetts' eastern federal court district, an area that includes Boston and its environs comprising approximately 5 million people.

The most recent data showing Massachusetts residents' views on the death penalty dates to 2003. It showed support having fallen substantially within the span of just seven years, to 53 percent from 65 percent in 1996, according to Boston Globe-WBZ-TV polls.

We can also get a sense of the jury's likely makeup from a 2013 poll of Boston residents asking who favored the death penalty for Tsarnaev, though that doesn't mean they would be incapable of impartially deciding between life and death.

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According to the University of New Hampshire survey published last year by the Boston Globe, only 33 percent of the 704 adults polled supported putting Tsarnaev to death. There was a 3.7 percentage point margin of error.

Among all the demographic groups canvased by the school, none showed support greater than 50 percent. The ones that showed the strongest support were:

  • Individuals earning between $75,000 and $100,000 (49%)
  • Republicans (46%)
  • Individuals with a high school education or less (42%)
  • Men (41%)

Women (64%), Democrats (61%), and whites (56%) were among the groups with the largest percentages that favored life without parole for Tsarnaev. Those also happen to describe the predominant demographics of the Boston area, according to the poll.

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Corrente notes that it would only take a single juror to vote against death for Tsarnaev to get life.

"From the defense’s point of view, [jury selection] can be seen as the most important proceeding in the entire trial," Corrente said.

Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, but Tsarnaev is being tried by the federal government. If the jury votes for the death penalty, the sentence will have to be carried out in another state.

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Corrente said no-one state that maintains the death penalty is more likely than another to carry out the sentence; it will fall on the judge to determine where an execution would take place based on states' statutes.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.