Long-delayed marathon bombing trial set to begin in Boston

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BOSTON (CNN) — The death penalty trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — long delayed by painstaking jury selection, crippling snowstorms and last-ditch appeals to move the case someplace else — finally is scheduled to begin here next week.

Judge George O’Toole, along with the prosecution and defense teams, settled on a pool of 70 jury prospects on Wednesday — the 21st day of individual juror interviews.

On Tuesday, attorneys will weed out jurors they believe are less sympathetic to their case. These “preemptory challenges” let attorneys remove jury prospects without giving a reason. Each side gets 20 challenges for the main jury and three for the alternates.

By Wednesday morning, March 4, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates is expected to be formally seated to hear opening statements and the first witnesses to an event that cut Boston to its core. O’Toole indicated the trial could last well into June.

The jurors first will decide whether Tsarnaev is guilty of using weapons of mass destruction to kill people at a large public event. If convicted, the jury then will decide whether he should be punished by life in prison without the possibility of release or death by lethal injection.

Potential jurors were questioned at length about whether they believed Tsarnaev was guilty and whether they could consider the death penalty in a state where it hasn’t been an option in a generation. The last execution here took place in 1947.

Many said they thought Tsarnaev was guilty of the April 15, 2013, bombings, which killed three people near the finish line. Tsarnaev also is charged in the April 19, 2013, death of MIT police officer Sean Collier. The officer was ambushed in his patrol car and shot to death as Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan ran from police.

The defense, claiming it couldn’t find an impartial jury in Boston, tried three times to persuade O’Toole to move the trial. He refused. An appeal is pending before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not ruled.

Opening statements and the first witnesses originally were slated for January 26, but it took longer that anticipated to question the prospective jurors for this high-profile case. The panel of 70 was selected from the first 600 or so jurors of the 1,373 who filled out questionnaires earlier this year.

Many of the jury prospects struggled with questions about where they stood on the death penalty and whether they could follow the law and vote for capital punishment if the facts and the law led them to that decision.

Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since the late 1940s and wiped the death penalty from its books for good in 1984. But this case is being tried in federal court, and 17 of the 30 counts against Tsarnaev include the death penalty as a possible punishment. They include so-called aggravating factors such as committing an act of terror and the tender years of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard.

It is almost certain that the trial, which will include wrenching testimony and video footage of the bombing victims, will be well underway during the running of this year’s Boston Marathon on April 20.

Tsarnaev, 21, is accused of building two homemade pressure cooker bombs with his older brother, Tamerlan. The bombs detonated moments apart near the finish line as the race wound down. Beside the three deaths, more than 250 other people were maimed or injured by flying shrapnel and nails.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a gun battle with police, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hours later, bleeding and hiding in a boat in a Watertown backyard. He had written Islamic slogans on the sides of the boat, federal authorities allege.

No cameras are allowed at the Tsarnaev trial.