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United States v. Tsarnaev

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 24, 2014



GEORGE A. O'TOOLE, District Judge.

This Opinion and Order resolves several pending motions.

I. Defendant's Motion for Change of Venue

The defendant has moved, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 21 and the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution, to transfer his trial to a place outside of the District of Massachusetts. He asserts that pretrial publicity and public sentiment require the Court to presume that the pool of prospective jurors in this District is so prejudiced against him that an impartial trial jury is virtually impossible.

In two provisions, the Constitution of the United States addresses where criminal trials are to be held. Article III provides that the trial of a criminal case "shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed." U.S. Const. Art. III, ยง 2, cl. 3. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to trial "by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." Id . amend. VI. Due process requires, however, that the Constitution's "place-of-trial prescriptions... do not impede transfer... to a different district at the defendant's request if extraordinary local prejudice will prevent a fair trial." Skilling v. United States , 561 U.S. 358, 378 (2010).[1]

In Skilling v. United States , the Supreme Court recently analyzed in depth the circumstances under which a presumption of prejudice would arise and warrant or command a change of venue, making clear that prejudice is only to be presumed in the most extreme cases. In that case, the defendant was a former Chief Executive Officer of Enron Corporation, a large Houston-headquartered corporation that "crashed into bankruptcy" as the result of the fraudulent conduct of the company's executives. Id. at 367. After the defendant was charged in federal court in Houston, he sought to move his case to another district based on widespread pretrial publicity and what was characterized as a general attitude of hostility toward him in the Houston area. The district court found that the defendant had not satisfied his burden of showing that prejudice should be presumed and declined to change the trial venue.

The Supreme Court agreed with the district court's conclusion. It addressed four factors it regarded as pertinent to whether the defendant had demonstrated a presumption of prejudice that required a venue transfer: 1) the size and characteristics of the community in which the crime occurred and from which the jury would be drawn; 2) the quantity and nature of media coverage about the defendant and whether it contained "blatantly prejudicial information of the type readers or viewers could not reasonably be expected to shut from sight"; (3) the passage of time between the underlying events and the trial and whether prejudicial media attention had decreased in that time; and (4) in hindsight, an evaluation of the trial outcome to consider whether the jury's conduct ultimately undermined any possible pretrial presumption of prejudice. Id. at 381-85.

The Court found that the potential jury pool-4.5 million people living in the Houston area-was a "large, diverse pool, " making "the suggestion that 12 impartial individuals could not be empaneled... hard to sustain." Id. at 382. With respect to media coverage, "although news stories about [the defendant] were not kind, they contained no confession or other blatantly prejudicial information" of the type that readers or viewers could not reasonably be expected to ignore. Id. at 382-83. The Court also noted that the "decibel level of media attention diminished somewhat" in the time between Enron's bankruptcy and the defendant's trial. Id. at 383. Finally, after trial the jury acquitted the defendant of nine counts, indicating careful consideration of the evidence and undermining any presumption of juror bias.[2] Id. at 383-84. The Court, finding that no presumption of prejudice arose, went on to conclude that the district court had not erred in declining to order a venue change. Id. at 385 ("Persuaded that no presumption arose, we conclude that the District Court, in declining to order a venue change, did not exceed constitutional limitations.") (footnotes omitted).

There is much about this case that is similar to Skilling. First, the Eastern Division of the District of Massachusetts includes about five million people. The division includes Boston, one of the largest cities in the country, but it also contains smaller cities as well as suburban, rural, and coastal communities. As the Court observed in Skilling, it stretches the imagination to suggest that an impartial jury cannot be successfully selected from this large pool of potential jurors. See also United States v. Salameh, No. S5 93 Cr. 0180 (KTD), 1993 WL 364486, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 15, 1993) (declining to transfer trial of defendant accused of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing out of the district due in part to the district's size and diversity).

Media coverage of this case, as both sides acknowledge, has been extensive. But "prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance." Skilling, 51 U.S. at 360-61 (emphasis in original). Indeed, the underlying events and the case itself have received national media attention. It is doubtful whether a jury could be selected anywhere in the country whose members were wholly unaware of the Marathon bombings. The Constitution does not oblige them to be. "It is sufficient if the juror can lay aside his impression or opinion and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court." Irvin v. Dowd , 366 U.S. 717, 723 (1961).

The defendant relies almost exclusively on a telephonic poll and an analysis of newspaper articles to support his argument that venue must be transferred due to the impact of pretrial publicity. I have reviewed the materials submitted. For substantially the same reasons articulated in the government's sur-reply, those results do not persuasively show that the media coverage has contained blatantly prejudicial information that prospective jurors could not reasonably be expected to cabin or ignore. For instance, regarding the newspaper analysis, I agree with the government that many of the search terms are overinclusive (e.g., "Boston Marathon" or "Marathon" or "Boylston Street"), hitting on news articles that are completely or generally unrelated to the Marathon bombings. Regarding the poll, the response rate was very low (3%), and that small sample is not representative of the demographic distribution of people in the Eastern Division. Additionally, some of the results appear at odds with the defendant's position. For example, almost all individuals who answered the poll questions were familiar with the bombing and the majority of them answered that they believed the defendant is "probably" or "definitely" guilty in all four jurisdictions surveyed. In any event, "[s]carcely any of those best qualified to serve as jurors will not have formed some impression or opinion as to the merits" of a widely-publicized criminal case such as this one. See Irvin , 366 U.S. at 722-73.

As to the passage of time, unlike cases where trial swiftly followed a widely reported crime, e.g., Rideau v. Louisiana , 373 U.S. 723, 724 (1963) (two months after videotaped confession was broadcasted), more than eighteen months have already passed since the bombings. In that time, media coverage has continued but the "decibel level of media attention [has] diminished somewhat." See Skilling , 561 U.S. at 361. The defendant's submissions do not prove otherwise.

Finally, although it is not possible to evaluate the jury's verdict for impartiality in hindsight at this stage, this Court's recent experience with high profile criminal cases in this District suggests a fair and impartial jury can be empaneled. In each of those cases, the jurors returned mixed verdicts, indicating a careful evaluation of the trial evidence despite widespread media coverage. See, e.g., Jury Verdict, United States v. O'Brien, Cr. No. 12-40026-WGY (July 24, 2014) (ECF No. 579); Jury Verdict, United States v. Tazhayakov, Cr. No. 13-10238-DPW (July 21, 2014) (ECF No. 334); Jury Verdict, United States v. Bulger, Cr. No. 99-10371-DJC (Aug. 12, 2013) (ECF No. 1304); Jury Verdict, United States v. DiMasi, Cr. No. 09-10166-MLW (June 15, 2011) (ECF No. 597).

In support of his argument, the defendant cites in passing only a few cases in which the Supreme Court has presumed prejudice for the purposes of transferring a case, Rideau v. Louisiana , 373 U.S. 723 (1963), Sheppard v. Maxwell , 384 U.S. 333 (1966), and Estes v. Texas , 381 U.S. 532 (1965).[3] First, all three cases are about fifty years old, and both the judicial and media environments have changed substantially during that time. Second, important differences separate those cases from the defendant's. Rideau involved a defendant whose detailed, twentyminute videotaped confession during a police interrogation was broadcast on television multiple times in a small community parish of only 150, 000 people two months before trial. 373 U.S. at 724-28. In both Estes and Sheppard, the actual courtrooms were so overrun by media that the trial atmosphere was "utterly corrupted by press coverage." See Skilling , 561 U.S. at 380; Sheppard , 384 U.S. at 353, 355, 358 ("[B]edlam reigned at the courthouse during the trial and newsman took over practically the entire courtroom, " thrusting jurors "into the role of celebrities" and ...

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