BOSTON — Potential jurors stared intently at Boston Marathon bombing defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as jury selection began under tight security Monday in one of the nation’s most closely watched terror cases since the Oklahoma City bombing two decades ago.
Tsarnaev, flanked by his attorneys, sat at a table at the front of the jury assembly room. Wearing a dark sweater and khaki pants, he looked down much of the time but occasionally glanced at the potential jurors and the judge. He also picked at his shaggy beard.
When U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. introduced him and asked him to stand, he acknowledged the group with an awkward nod.
Tsarnaev, 21, is accused of planning and carrying out the twin pressure-cooker bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 260 near the finish line of the race on April 15, 2013.
Over the next three days, a larger-than-normal pool of about 1,200 people will be summoned to federal court to be considered as potential jurors. The first 200 were given initial instructions Monday by O’Toole. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be selected.
The judge said testimony in the trial will begin on Jan. 26 and last three to four months.
O’Toole briefly outlined the 30 charges against Tsarnaev, which include using a weapon of mass destruction. He is also accused of killing an MIT police officer as he and his brother tried to flee days after the bombings.
The jury will be asked to decide both whether Tsarnaev is guilty and what his punishment will be if he is convicted: life in prison or death.
Dozens of police officers were posted inside and outside the courthouse. One bombing victim, Karen Brassard, was outside the jury room, waiting to observe jury selection.
There were no Tsarnaev supporters outside the courthouse as there have been during pretrial hearings, but one man stood holding a sign calling for federal officials to be held accountable for failing to prevent the bombing.
“I’m not a supporter of his,” said Kevin O’Connell, a delivery driver from Boston. “But I think the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI need to be held accountable. ... They screwed up big-time by not preventing it.”
The prospective jurors group began filling out long questionnaires that will be used to weed out people with potential conflicts. Eventually, lawyers for the government and Tsarnaev, along with the judge, will question potential jurors individually.
The judge acknowledged that serving as a juror can be “at the very least, inconvenient,” but he said jurors will not automatically be excused if they have a hardship such as a demanding work schedule or have read extensively about the case.
Survivors and first responders are among those expected to testify.
Heather Abbott, of Newport, Rhode Island, who lost her left leg below the knee in the attack, said her biggest question may be an unanswerable one: “Why?”
“I don’t know whether I’ll ever get any answer to that question, but I guess I want to understand what the thought process was,” said Abbott, who plans to attend some of the proceedings. “Why he would want to do this to people ... it’s really hard to understand.”
The trial is perhaps the most scrutinized case of its kind since Timothy McVeigh was convicted and executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers tried for months to get the trial moved, arguing the Boston jury pool was tainted because of the number of locals with connections to the race. They drew parallels to the McVeigh case, which was moved to Denver for similar reasons. But the judge refused.
Jury selection is expected to be a long process because of the need to weed out people influenced by the heavy news coverage and the large number of runners, spectators and others affected by the bombings. The process also could be slowed if potential jurors express objections to the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev — ethnic Chechens who had lived in the United States for about a decade — carried out the bombings in retaliation for U.S. actions in Muslim countries. Tamerlan, 26, died after a firefight with police days after the bombings.
The defense is expected to argue that Dzhokhar had a difficult childhood and was heavily influenced by his elder brother, who authorities believe became radicalized in the last few years of his life.