Massachusetts braces for bombing, Aaron Hernandez trials

January 12th, 2015 by Staff

Tsarnaev, 21, listens to court proceedings last week.


(Associated Press) BOSTON, Mass. – Jury summonses have been flying, police have been deploying and the news media have been scrambling like seldom before as two highly anticipated criminal trials get underway almost simultaneously in Massachusetts: the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the murder trial of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.

The trials began last week within days of each other, competing for jurors, security, headlines and the public’s attention. Both are expected to be lengthy, high-profile affairs.

People find both cases fascinating but for very different reasons, said Jack Levin, a criminologist and sociologist at Boston’s Northeastern University.

“In the case of the marathon bombing, the fascination comes from a widespread feeling that people have that they are vulnerable. There’s a negative fascination there,” he said. “People are scared to death by the possibility of terrorism.”

“In the Hernandez case, it’s because we place a tremendous value on athletes, and when one of them commits a serious crime like homicide, it shocks the public,” Levin said. “It’s a hero falling from grace.”

Tsarnaev, 21, and his brother allegedly set off the twin bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, one of the world’s premiere races. The blasts killed three people, injured more than 260 and terrified people across the state.

In the days after, the nation was gripped by television coverage of a dramatic gun battle between police and the Tsarnaev brothers — ethnic Chechens who lived in Kyrgyzstan and Russia before coming to the U.S. more than a decade ago — and the capture of the wounded and bloodied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, found hiding in a boat.

Tsarnaev is also charged with killing an MIT police officer. His brother died in the shootout with police.

Hernandez, a former tight end for the Patriots, is charged with fatally shooting Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semiprofessional football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. At the time Lloyd was killed in June 2013, Hernandez was a rising star in the National Football League who had signed a five-year, $40 million contract and helped his team to the 2012 Super Bowl.

Rarely has there been a confluence of two such highly anticipated trials.

The saturation of media attention in both cases has led judges to call in unusually large numbers of prospective jurors to try to find people who haven’t already formed strong opinions.

In the Hernandez case, between 1,100 and 1,200 prospective jurors have been asked to report for duty, the largest number for any state trial in recent memory, said Massachusetts Jury Commissioner Pamela J. Wood. In the Tsarnaev case, more than 1,350 prospective jurors reported to federal court.

The size of the jury pools in each trial tops the number of prospective jurors called in some other high-profile cases, including the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, which had a jury pool of about 1,000; and the 2013 federal racketeering trial of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, which had a pool of about 675.

“It’s requiring additional resources from my office, but it’s certainly something we’re able to handle,” Wood said.

The dueling trials are also presenting challenges for the news media. The Tsarnaev trial is expected to last three to four months, while the Hernandez trial is predicted to last six to 10 weeks.

The Boston Globe, the state’s largest newspaper, plans to assign multiple reporters to each trial. But other news organizations whose staffs have been sharply cut over the last decade may not be able to do the same.

“I assume it’s going to put a lot of strain on a lot of newsrooms in the Boston area,” said Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s senior deputy managing editor for local news.

Cameras will be allowed in the courtroom for the Hernandez trial, so trial watchers will be able to see at least some of it on television. Tsarnaev’s case will be tried in federal court, where cameras are typically not allowed.

Tsarnaev’s trial will be held in Boston, while Hernandez’s trial will be held in state Superior Court in Fall River, about 55 miles south of Boston.

Court officials in both trials have reserved seats for the public and the media in the courtroom, and have set up separate rooms with a feed from the courtroom for expected overflow crowds.

In the marathon trial, the court has reserved seats for people who were injured in the bombings and family members of the three people who were killed, as well as seats for Tsarnaev’s family. In the Hernandez trial, the court has set aside seats for family and friends of Lloyd and Hernandez.

Court officials would not release details on security for either trial. During the first few days of jury selection at Tsarnaev’s trial, security was visibly tight and included dozens of police inside and outside the courthouse, bomb-sniffing dogs and U.S. Coast Guard boats patrolling Boston Harbor.


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