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Potential Jurors Screened For Boston Marathon Bombing Trial


Potential jurors are being screened in Boston to decide the fate of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The bombings in 2013 marked the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. Hundreds of candidates today filled out questionnaires asking whether they were personally affected by the Boston Marathon blast and whether they would be willing to impose the death penalty. NPR's Tovia Smith was in the federal courthouse and joins us now.

And Tovia, this was the first day of what's expected to be a very long jury selection process. What else can you tell us about what happened today?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, for starters, there were hundreds of members of the public today who got to lay eyes on the defendant, Tsarnaev, who has only been seen publicly since the attack through courtroom sketches. So there was definitely a curiosity factor, a lot of staring.

Tsarnaev, meantime, was fidgety, he was looking around. He was dressed in a sweater and khakis, stroking his shaggy beard. He still has long hair. One side of his face and his eyes still look droopy, presumably as a result of the injuries during the shootout after the marathon. He said nothing and just looked down as the judge introduced him as the defendant. He's facing 30 federal counts of murder and terrorism. And the judge told potential jurors, quote, "we need your help," and he told jurors they shouldn't think of this as a, quote, "annoying burden," though I spoke with a woman who said her son was among the candidates inside, and they were both hoping he would not make the cut for this trial that may go on for five months or so.

BLOCK: And apart from the potential jurors, Tovia, were there any survivors or victims' families in the courtroom today?

SMITH: None visible to reporters, though I am told that they were here to watch. And you know, survivors and their families feel very differently about this. Some want to be at the trial to see Tsarnaev and to try to understand. Others say they want him to see them and the pain he allegedly caused. And then there are others who say they don't want to come because they want to focus on their own healing, not on him.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about the process here, Tovia. What would it take to get through jury selection and actually onto this jury?

SMITH: It would take a lot. They're whittling a pool of about 1,200 candidates down to just 12 with six alternates. Some will be excused for hardship, and then jurors will be grilled about two big issues - first, whether they could impose the death penalty if Tsarnaev is convicted. In other words, they just have to have an open mind to the possibility. And second, whether they have a personal connection to the attack. And that's going to be a tricky one because that can mean very different things, you know, just anyone who was injured, anyone who knows someone who was a victim, anyone who was there. As the prosecutors put it, the city of Boston itself was a victim of this crime. So it is an issue of where to draw the line.

BLOCK: And that helps explain why up until recently, Tsarnaev's defense attorneys have been trying very hard to get this trial moved out of Boston.

SMITH: Right. Even up until the day before yesterday, when a federal appeals court rejected an 11th hour emergency motion and basically backed the trial judge, who insists that impartial jurors can be found here. Though I should add, the trial judge has also said that if it turns out that he's wrong and it's not happening, he says the issue of moving the trial can be revisited down the road.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tovia Smith, who is covering the trial of the accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston. Jury selection began today.

Tovia, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.