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Boston Marathon bombing trial begins with high-stakes jury selection

The trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began Monday morning with the start of jury selection, a complicated process that could set the tone in the high-profile death penalty case.

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In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, second from right, is depicted with his lawyers, left, beside US District Judge George O'Toole Jr., right, as O'Toole addresses a pool of potential jurors in a jury assembly room at the federal courthouse, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, in Boston. Tsarnaev is charged with the April 2013 attack that killed three people and injured more than 260. His trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 26. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP

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The trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began Monday morning with the first day of jury selection.

Mr. Tsarnaev was in the courthouse in South Boston to face 200 potential jurors – the first group of about 1,200 eastern Massachusetts residents who will be vetted to see if they can impartially judge Tsarnaev. Ultimately, they could have to determine if he is sentenced to death.

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The trial – possibly the most high-profile federal death penalty case since the 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – is expected to last into the summer. Jury selection could take the rest of January.

In fact, some observers hope that jury selection takes that long.

“I would certainly not want to see a jury selected in a hurry in this case,” says David Hoose, an attorney in Northampton, Mass., who specializes in death penalty cases.

“Whatever time it takes, it takes,” says Mr. Hoose, who adds that he would be “worried” if jury selection is concluded before the end of January.

Tsarnaev is accused of helping to plan and carry out two bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, with his older brother, Tamerlan. The attack killed three bystanders and wounded more than 260. Tsarnaev was taken into custody a few days later, after a manhunt that resulted in his brother's death.

The bombings preoccupied Bostonians and dominated national news for weeks. Given the high-profile nature of the case and its intimate connection to the Boston area, observers have questioned whether the US District Court in South Boston can impanel a 12-person jury, with six alternates, to fairly judge Tsarnaev.

Judge George O’Toole has twice denied defense motions to relocate the trial, meaning jurors will be drawn from eastern Massachusetts. If 18 jurors cannot be selected from the initial pool of 1,200, hundreds more could be called.

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In the first stage of jury selection, potential jurors will fill out questionnaires, answering a series of questions designed to root out basic biases or conflicts of interest. Questionnaires will also help determine if serving on the jury would present a hardship for the potential juror – for example, if the person is caring for an ill relative or a child under 10 years old.

Approximately 600 potential jurors could remain after the questionnaire phase. The judge and attorneys will then question the individuals in a process known as “voir dire,” determining whether they can deal impartially with the issues of the case. In the Tsarnaev case, these issues could range from their feelings on the death penalty to their thoughts on terrorism and Islam.

Throughout the process, the prosecution and defense attorneys will challenge the inclusion of certain potential jurors on the final jury. Both sides have a set amount of challenges they’re allowed to use, and the final decision for selecting a juror rests with the judge.

“This is an adversarial process,” Hoose says. “A lot of this is psychology, and there’s a real skill to voir diring a jury in terms of asking the right questions.”

The lines of questioning in jury selection are expected to lay the groundwork for the prosecution and defense arguments. Prosecutors say Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev – ethnic Chechens who had lived in the United States for about a decade – carried out the bombings in retaliation for US actions in Muslim countries. The defense is expected to argue that Dzhokhar's actions were the result of a difficult childhood and heavy influence from his brother.

Since the death penalty is a possible outcome, the trial will be split into two phases. The first phase will determine whether Tsarnaev is guilty or not guilty. If he is found guilty, the second phase will determine whether he should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release. The same jury will judge both phases of the trial.

A decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death would require a unanimous verdict from the jury, so observers think Tsarnaev’s defense team will be looking for at least one juror who could vote against death.

“The defense lawyer is going to be looking for someone who is going to consider the case in mitigation [the death penalty phase] and give it the weight that it deserves,” Hoose says.

The way jury selection is handled could have significant implications for the case moving forward. Issues with the jury selection process – or specific jurors – could be raised by the defense in appeals.

“If you find one thing that messed it up, it messed it up, and you go back to Square 1. So the stakes are very high,” says Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who is a former state assistant attorney general.

But with such a long trial, she adds, it may be impossible to avoid such complications.

“The nature of the beast is that things are going to happen that no one anticipates,” she says.