Massachusetts ended the death penalty for state crimes in 1984. However, because Tsarnaev was tried on federal charges, he was eligible for execution.
The Tsarnaev family was forcibly moved from Chechnya to the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in the years following World War II. His father, Anzor Tsarnaev, is a Chechen, and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, is an Avar. The couple had two sons, Tamerlan, born in the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1986, and Dzhokhar, born in Kyrgyzstan in 1993. The parents also have two daughters, Bella and Aliana. Anzor is a traditional Muslim who shuns extremism and raised his children as Muslims. According to some, other Chechen Americans in the area apparently did not consider the American branch of the family to be "fully" Chechen because they had never lived in Chechnya.
Dzhokhar Anzorovich Tsarnaev (/ˌdʒoʊˈxɑːr ˌtsɑːrˈnaɪɛf/; born July 22, 1993) is a Kyrgyz man of Chechen descent who was convicted of terrorism in planting pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, along with his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The bombings killed three people and injured approximately 280 others.
Tsarnaev was born in Kyrgyzstan on July 22, 1993. As a child, he emigrated with his family to Russia and then, when he was eight years old, to the United States under political asylum. The family settled in Cambridge and became U.S. permanent residents in March 2007. He became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012, which is exactly 7 months and 4 days before bombing. While in college. His mother, Zubeidat, also became a U.S. citizen, but it is not clear if his father, Anzor, ever did. Tamerlan, his brother, was unable to naturalize expeditiously due to an investigation against him, which held up the citizenship process. Dzhokhar attended Cambridgeport Elementary School and Cambridge Community Charter School's middle school program. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public high school, he was an avid wrestler and a Greater Boston League winter all-star. He sometimes worked as a lifeguard at Harvard University.
As children, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar lived in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, the family moved to Makhachkala, Dagestan, in the Russian Federation. In April 2002, the Tsarnaev parents and Dzhokhar went to the United States on a 90-day tourist visa. Anzor Tsarnaev applied for asylum, citing fears of deadly persecution due to his ties to Chechnya.
He and his family had traveled to the United States on a tourist visa and subsequently claimed asylum during their stay in 2002. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012. At the time of the bombings, Tsarnaev was a student at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Previously, Tsarnaev had attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
The family "was in constant transition" for the next decade. Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev both received welfare benefits. The father worked as a backyard mechanic and the mother worked as a cosmetologist until she lost her job for refusing to work in a business that served men. In March 2007, the family was granted legal permanent residence.
In 2011, he contacted a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who taught a class about Chechen history, expressing his interest in the topic. He graduated from high school in 2011 and the city of Cambridge awarded him a $2,500 scholarship that year. His brother's boxing coach, who had not seen them in a few years at the time of the bombings, said that "the young brother was like a puppy dog, following his older brother".
Tsarnaev enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in September 2011. He started with a marine biology major with the intent on becoming a dentist but later changed to nursing.
A triple homicide was committed in Waltham, Massachusetts, on the evening of September 11, 2011. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the case was re-examined, and authorities said the Tsarnaev brothers may have been responsible for the murders, that forensic evidence connected them to the scene of the killings, and that their cell phone records placed them in the area at the time of the killings. In May 2013, Ibragim Todashev, a 27-year-old Chechen native and former mixed martial arts fighter who knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot and killed in Orlando, Florida, by law enforcement officers who had been interviewing him about the bombings and the Waltham murders. The FBI alleged that just before he was killed, Todashev made statements implicating both himself and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the Waltham murders—saying that the initial crime was a drug-related robbery, and the murders were committed to prevent being identified by the victims.
Tsarnaev appealed his sentence on the grounds that the trial should not have been held in Boston; that there were errors in jury selection; and that the judge improperly excluded evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and another man, Ibragim Toadashev committed a prior triple murder in Waltham on September 11, 2011, suggesting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev acted under his influence, and was possibly fearful of what would happen to him if he refused. The appeal was heard by a three-judge panel of the First Circuit on December 12, 2019. On July 31, 2020, the First Circuit overturned the death sentence and three of the other convictions, agreeing that the judge failed to determine how much the potential jurors had been aware of the event during jury selection, and ordered a retrial with a new jury for the penalty phase of his trial. Tsarnaev remained in prison from multiple life sentences carried by the other uncontested convictions. U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who wrote the opinion clarified the ruling of the court. She stated, "Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution."
In 2012, Arlington Police ran a warrant check on Tsarnaev and checked his green Honda when they were investigating a report of underage drinking at a party in Arlington Heights.
Tsarnaev and his brother murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier on April 18, 2013 at the MIT campus in an attempt to steal his gun, before traveling to the Boston neighborhood of Allston. There, the brothers carjacked an SUV and robbed the owner. However, the owner of the car said he managed to escape when the Tsarnaevs became momentarily distracted in the process of refueling the car at a cash-only gas station. Dun Meng, who originally did not give his name to the media but said he goes by the name "Danny", said he fled to another nearby gas station and contacted the police. Police were then able to track the location of the car through the man's cellphone and the SUV's anti-theft tracking device.
Tsarnaev was the subject of a cover story for an August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone entitled "The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster." The magazine drew heavy criticism for the flattering photo of Tsarnaev on the issue's cover. Boston Mayor Tom Menino wrote that the cover "rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment." Massachusetts State Police sergeant Sean Murphy said that "glamorizing the face of terror is not just insulting to the family members of those killed in the line of duty, it also could be an incentive to those who may be unstable to do something to get their face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine". The New York Times used the same photo on their front page in May 2013, but did not draw criticism. Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi criticized those who took offense at the cover, arguing that they associated Rolling Stone with glamour instead of news, stating that The New York Times did not draw the criticism that Rolling Stone did, "because everyone knows the Times is a news organization. Not everyone knows that about Rolling Stone… because many people out there understandably do not know that Rolling Stone is also a hard-news publication."
On May 16, 2013, during CBS This Morning, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller said he had been told that Tsarnaev wrote a note in the boat in which he was hiding and claimed responsibility for the April 15 attack during the marathon. The note was scribbled with a pen on one of the inside walls of the cabin and said the bombings were payback for the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and referred to the Boston victims as collateral damage, the same way Muslims have been in the American-led wars. He continued, "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims." He also said he did not mourn his brother's death because now Tamerlan was a martyr in paradise and that he (Dzhokhar) expected to join him in paradise. Miller's sources said the wall the note was written on had multiple bullet holes in it from the shots that were fired into the boat by police. According to Miller during the interview he gave on the morning show, he said that the note will be a significant piece of evidence in any Dzhokhar trial and that it is "certainly admissible", and paints a clear picture of the brothers' motive, "consistent with what he told investigators while he was in custody".
Tsarnaev's arraignment for 30 charges, including four counts of murder, occurred on July 10, 2013, in federal court in Boston before U.S. magistrate judge Marianne Bowler. It was his first public court appearance. He pleaded not guilty to all 30 counts against him, which included using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. Tsarnaev was represented by Miriam Conrad, David Bruck, William Fick, Timothy G. Watkins and Judy Clarke.
He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, where he was treated for severe injuries in the intensive-care unit. He was in serious but stable condition (updated to "fair" on April 23), and unable to speak because of the wound to his throat. According to one of the nurses, he had cried for two days straight after waking up. He responded to authorities in writing and by nodding his head, although he did manage to say the word "no" when asked if he could afford a lawyer. Court documents released in August 2013, show that Tsarnaev had a skull fracture and gunshot wounds prior to being taken into custody. According to a doctor that treated him, Tsarnaev had a skull-base fracture, with injuries to the middle ear, the skull base, the lateral portion of his C1 vertebra, with a significant soft tissue injury, as well as injury to the pharynx, the mouth, and a small vascular injury.
On January 30, 2014, United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev. A plea deal failed when the government refused to rule out the possibility of the death penalty.
The trial began on January 5, 2015; Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty to all thirty charges laid against him. The proceedings were led by Judge George O'Toole. Tsarnaev's attorney Judy Clarke admitted in her opening statement that Tsarnaev committed the acts in question, but sought to avert the death penalty by showing that his brother Tamerlan was the mastermind behind the acts. Counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt also gave testimony.
On April 8, 2015, Tsarnaev was found guilty on all thirty counts of the indictment. The charges of usage of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, in addition to aiding and abetting, made Tsarnaev eligible for the death penalty.
On the evening of April 19, the seriously wounded Tsarnaev was found unarmed hiding in a boat on a trailer in Watertown just outside the police perimeter. After the police opened fire at the boat, they arrested him, and took him to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Tsarnaev was charged on April 22 with using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and with malicious destruction of property resulting in death. Tsarnaev later said during questioning that they next intended to detonate explosives in Times Square in New York City. Tsarnaev reportedly also said to authorities that he and his brother were radicalized, at least in part, by watching lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki. He was convicted on April 8, 2015, and sentenced to death on June 24, 2015. His death sentence was vacated on appeal in July 2020, though convictions on other charges remain in place, and he remains in prison on several life sentences.
Tsarnaev, who had displayed little emotion throughout his trial, appeared to weep when his relatives testified on May 4, 2015. On May 15, 2015, the jury recommended that Tsarnaev be sentenced to death by lethal injection on six of 17 capital counts.
On June 24, 2015, Tsarnaev faced his victims in court as his death sentence was formally delivered. Victims and their families were able to present impact statements to the court, and Tsarnaev, who had been silent throughout his month-long trial, apologized to the injured and the bereaved in the bombings.
The following morning, on June 25, 2015, Tsarnaev was transferred to the United States Penitentiary, Florence High in Colorado; as of July 17, 2015 he had been transferred to ADX Florence. A Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spokesperson stated that "unique security management requirements" caused the agency to place Tsarnaev in Colorado instead of United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana, where male death-row inmates are normally held.
According to The Guardian, in June 2016, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a threat to the United States of the "gravest consequences" if Tsarnaev should be harmed.