The Commentary considers the constitutionality of (1) the trial court’s exclusion of relevant mitigating evidence during the trial’s penalty phase and (2) the imposition of a death sentence by the Supreme Court during a moratorium on federal executions. In the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the jury ultimately convicted Dzhokhar of thirty counts and recommended death sentences for six of the capital offenses. On appeal, the First Circuit vacated these death sentences and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing with a different jury. First, the Court of Appeals held that the voir dire used to seat the jury was insufficient. Second, and particularly relevant here, the Court of Appeals held that the district court erred by excluding reliable mitigating evidence from the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar’s trial. The excluded evidence was specifically directed at a set of prior murders allegedly committed for jihadist purposes by Dzhokhar’s older, influential brother and co-perpetrator in the bombings.
This commentary finds that the Court’s ruling will likely determine how much deference is given to the decisions of federal trial courts on issues directly linked to the fairness of procedures used in federal capital trials. More narrowly, the Court’s decision will guide future appellate courts in determining how much deference to give trial court decisions related to the introduction of mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of a capital trial. The Court should ensure procedural safeguards are consistently followed to wholly protect the constitutional rights afforded to capital defendants, regardless of the atrocities committed. When the potential punishment is of the utmost severity and places a defendant’s life on the line, such safeguards are indispensable in order to maintain consistency with the Constitution.