BOSTON — Potential jurors stared intently at Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as jury selection in his federal death penalty trial began Monday under tight security.
Tsarnaev, flanked by his attorneys, sat at a table in the front of the jury assembly room. Wearing a dark sweater and khaki trousers, he looked down much of the time but occasionally glanced at the potential jurors and looked at the judge. He also picked at his shaggy beard.
When Judge George O'Toole Jr. introduced him and asked him to stand, he acknowledged the group with a slight nod.
Over the next three days, about 1,200 people will be called 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 are to be selected.
The judge said the trial will begin on Jan. 26 and will 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 several days after the bombings.
The judge also explained that the trial is unlike most other federal trials. In this case, 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.
The courthouse was under tight security Monday, with dozens of police officers inside and outside the building. 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.
Tsarnaev is accused of planning and carrying out the twin bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260 near the finish line of the race on April 15, 2013.
Survivors and first responders are among those expected to testify.
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 if they have read extensively about the case.
The prospective jurors group began filling out lengthy 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, then choose the jury.
Heather Abbott, of Newport, Rhode Island, who lost her left leg below the knee in the attacks, 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 U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr., who is presiding over the case, refused.
Jury selection is expected to be a lengthy process because of extensive media coverage and the thousands of runners, spectators and others in the area affected by the bombings. The process also could be slowed if potential jurors express objections to the death penalty.
Prosecutors say 21-year-old Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev - ethnic Chechens who had lived in the United States for about a decade - carried out the bombings as retaliation for U.S. actions in Muslim countries. Tamerlan, 26, died after a firefight with police several 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, including during a six-month trip to Dagestan and Chechnya in 2012.