Should prosecutors seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

Polls show that most Americans are in favor, but prosecutors may not pursue it

Defense lawyer Judy Clarke: Tsarnaev's defense team is at a "preliminary, delicate stage"
(Image credit: AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

A significant majority of Americans think accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death if found guilty of the attacks, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday. Yet while Americans may want to see Tsarnaev put on death row, there are already signs that option may be taken off the table.

In the poll, 70 percent of respondents said they support the death penalty for a convicted Tsarnaev, versus just 27 percent who said the opposite. In addition, 74 percent said they backed the government's decision to try him in a federal court rather than hold him as an enemy combatant.

Federal prosecutors charged Tsarnaev with using a weapon of mass destruction to commit murder, a crime punishable by death. (It's worth noting that under federal law, virtually any explosive device can be classified as a WMD.)

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However, multiple reports say prosecutors may not even pursue the death penalty — so long as Tsarnaev cooperates with investigators. According to CNN's Bill Mears, there are "very preliminary" talks to that end underway, with the hope being that such a deal would convince Tsarnaev to open up to investigators about the bombing. Tsarnaev reportedly started off cooperating with authorities after his capture, but has since clammed up.

From CNN:

Communications are in the very early stages, and not a sign lawyers for either side are ready to make a deal, said one source, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the private discussions. The source emphasized these are not formal negotiations, and no deals have been offered.

The discussions between prosecution and defense attorneys are at a 'preliminary, delicate stage' and both refused to offer details of what either side would be willing to leverage, according to the sources. A Justice Department official said it is not accurate to suggest there are negotiations. [CNN]

NBC's Pete Williams and Tracy Connor, citing their own sources, confirmed that lawyers had begun discussing that option. According to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, it's unclear if investigators or Tsarnaev's lawyers first floated that possibility.

At the same time, Tsarnaev has been appointed an anti-death penalty attorney who is famous for keeping other accused killers off death row. The attorney, Judy Clarke, defended Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; Tucson, Ariz., shooter Jared Loughner; and the Atlanta Olympics bomber. Given her history of negotiating guilty pleas in exchange for life sentences, it's widely believed she'll pursue the same strategy here.

The government has not yet said what penalty it will pursue for Tsarnaev. A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, told CNN, "We have no comment at this time on what potential penalty the government might seek if the defendant is convicted, particularly given that the defendant has only just been charged."

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.