As the case unfolds against Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old may earn a dubious distinction -- the federal government has indicated his could be one of the rare cases where it seeks the death penalty.
At an arraignment this week, the judge warned Tsarnaev he could face the death penalty if convicted of the charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction in the twin blasts that killed three and wounded 264 people on April 15.
But experts say the possible sentence is a long way off for the ethnic Chechen man who is accused, along with his now dead older brother, of committing the worst terror attack on civilians in the US since the suicide airliner strikes of September 11, 2001.
Only three men have been put to death at the federal level since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment four decades ago, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Another 59 are on death row at a federal prison in Indiana, it said.
In contrast, more than 1,300 inmates have been put to death by states since the Supreme Court lifted a 30-year moratorium on capital punishment in 1976, and more than 3,100 inmates are on death row in state prisons, according to the DPIC.
The most well-known federal execution in recent years was that of Timothy McVeigh, put to death on June 11, 2001 by lethal injection after he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
Juan Garza, convicted of killing three other drug traffickers in Texas, came next: he was put to death on June 19, 2001.
And, less than two years later, Gulf War veteran Louis Jones, was executed on March 18, 2003, for the rape and murder of a female soldier in Texas.
But in other grave crimes, the U.S. government has chosen to eschew the death penalty.
So-called “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, convicted of killing three and wounding 23 more, and Eric Rudolph, convicted of killing two and wounding 150 with a bomb at the Atlanta Olympic Games, were each sentenced to life in prison.
The decision on whether to seek the death penalty or life in prison for Tsarnaev won’t be finalized immediately, analysts said.
“The threat of the death penalty is an enormously powerful tool to get someone who is facing that threat to cooperate... to tell us what he knows,” explained Rosanna Cavallaro of Suffolk University Law School.
“Charging him with a capital crime is also a kind of a negotiating tool,” she said.
Ultimately, Attorney General Eric Holder must decide whether Tsarnaev should face the death penalty -- something experts said was likely in this case.
But either way, Tsarnaev has “a long, long process” ahead of him, Cavallaro said, “with hundreds of people dedicated to (building the case against him) full-time.”
He is likely to face additional charges, beyond the ones he heard on Monday, which also included one count of malicious destruction of property by means of deadly explosives.
Often the Justice Department “will file the indictment and add other charges as the investigation proceeds and more information is developed,” explained Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine University School of Law.
Death Penalty Information Center Director Richard Dieter noted: “It will be at least a year before the case goes to trial, and if there’s the death penalty there will be years of appeal so there’s no execution in the foreseeable future.”
And although his lawyers are likely to try for a plea bargain, said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St Mary’s University, Texas, “because of the gruesome nature of this crime, the government is going to refuse it.”
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