WASHINGTON -- Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, could face the death penalty if he is convicted in the first deadly terrorist assault in the USA since the Sept. 11, attacks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday.
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Holder's decision comes more than nine months after the twin bombings were allegedly carried out by Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26. The attack left three dead and wounded more than 260 gathered near the finish of the iconic race April 15. The elder brother was killed in a confrontation with police in the days after the bombings.
"After consideration of the relevant facts, the applicable regulations and the submissions made by the defendant's counsel, I have determined that the United States will seek the death penalty in this matter,'' Holder said Thursday. "The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision."
A trial date has not been set for Tsarnaev, who has been charged with 30 criminal counts.
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In the government's formal notice of its intent to seek death, prosecutors alleged that Tsarnaev "committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner in that it involved serious physical abuse.''
Authorities also cited Tsarnaev's alleged "betrayal of the United States.''
"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people in the United States,'' the eight-page court document states, referring to the Tsarnaev family's flight from Russia.
Prosecutors alleged that Tsarnaev "demonstrated a lack of remorse'' related to the bombings and his alleged involvement in the murder of police officer Sean Collier while Tsarnaev and his brother were being sought.
Miriam Conrad, one of Tsarnaev's defense lawyers, declined comment Thursday.
Liz Norden, the mother of two sons who lost their right legs in the blasts, said the government's decision was "a step in the right direction.''
"I support it,'' Norden said, adding that her sons had not taken a position on the matter. "They are doing OK; they are concentrating on getting their lives back on track.''
The Justice Department's decision coincided with a message issued by the family of the youngest victim killed in the attack, 8-year-old Martin Richard.
"We established The Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation to honor our son Martin's message of peace, a message that went global in the days after he was tragically taken from us while we were all cheering on runners at last year's Boston Marathon," Martin's father, Bill Richard, said on the foundation's Internet site, announcing that a team would be running in the child's memory at this year's Boston Marathon. "While the pain of that day will forever be with us, our hope is that this special event becomes a source of strength for our family and a means to make a difference in the world."
The family did not address the death penalty decision.
Although the death penalty has been authorized for about 500 federal suspects since the maximum punishment was reinstated in 1988, only three offenders have been executed during that time and none in the past decade. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh marked the first federal execution in nearly 40 years when he was put to death by lethal injection in 2001.
Though there is little dispute that the evidence against Tsarnaev is strong -- there are photographs of the suspect allegedly planting explosives at the site of one of the bombings -- there have been mixed views about whether he should be subjected to a
Unless the case is moved, a Massachusetts jury would decide Tsarnaev's fate in a state long opposed to the death penalty. In September, less than six months after the bombings, a poll commissioned by The Boston Globe found that 57% of Boston residents favored life in prison without parole in the event of conviction, while 33% supported death.
Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor who assisted in the Oklahoma City bombing prosecutions, said that while Holder is personally opposed to the death penalty, the attorney general's decision to seek it in this case was "right.''
"If not in this case, then you have to ask when?'' Goelman said.
Still, the former prosecutor said convincing a Massachusetts jury to return a death penalty "will be an uphill battle.''
"It will be a challenge for a Boston jury to vote for death,'' he said.
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