Boston bombing trial opens on Monday as emotions run high

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is shown in a courtroom sketch during a pre-trial hearing at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts on Dec 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is shown in a courtroom sketch during a pre-trial hearing at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts on Dec 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The highly anticipated trial of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev opens on Monday, promising to inflame emotions 18 months after the bloody attack, the worst on United States (US) soil since Sept 11, 2001.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces the death penalty for the April 15, 2013, bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon that killed three people and wounded 264.

Jury selection will commence on Monday for the trial, which is expected to last several months, after a three-month delay.

Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to 30 charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and bombing a public place resulting in death.

The federal trial is one of the most anticipated since Timothy McVeigh's for detonating a bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in 1995.

Tsarnaev will be represented by a team of five lawyers, including Ms Judy Clarke, a defence attorney known for getting clients off death row.

She has represented Eric Randolph, the mastermind behind the Atlanta Olympic bombing that killed two people and injured more than 100. She secured consecutive life sentences for him instead of death sought by prosecutors.

She also helped spare Unabomber Ted Kaczynski from death, after he sent several explosives to universities and airlines, killing three and injuring 23 between 1978 and 1995.

But in order to ease the death sentence for Tsarnaev, she would have to strike a deal with prosecutors, which so far seems an unlikely prospect.

- Tensions run high -

Tensions have been high at preliminary hearings for the trial, with small protests at last month's court appearance, Tsarnaev's second since the attack.

Families of victims gathered, some vowing to attend the full trial in the northeastern US city which has a population of 645,000.

Ms Liz Norden has two sons who each lost a leg in the attack, and she said she plans to attend every court session.

"I want to try make sense of it. I know I won't, but I just need to see it through... I have no choice. I want to know everything," she told AFP.

She hopes to see Tsarnaev sentenced to death.

"I want him dead, I think that would be justice." At Tsarnaev's appearance last week, one victim angrily showed his artificial leg to demonstrators who were proclaiming the suspect's innocence.

After the hearing, a woman yelled out support for Tsarnaev in Russian.

Defence lawyers have asked for protesters to be barred from demonstrating outside the court.

- Chaos and carnage -

Tsarnaev is being held at Fort Devens prison hospital about 70km outside of Boston.

The Muslim of Chechen descent is accused of carrying out the Boston attacks with his brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police four days after the attack.

He and Tamerlan are accused of planting two pressure cooker bombs hidden in backpacks near the finish line of the Boston marathon, attended by several thousand people.

The two explosives detonated within 12 seconds of one another, creating a scene of chaos and carnage in downtown Boston.

A frantic manhunt ensued as police scoured the city for the suspects.

Dzhokhar was discovered hiding in a boat in Boston suburb, seriously injured.

He allegedly scrawled a rambling explanation of his motives for the Boston attacks on an interior wall of the boat, where he was arrested in a suburban backyard several days after the attacks.

"The US government is killing our innocent civilians," Tsarnaev wrote.

"I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished... we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.

"Now, I don't like killing innocent people, it is forbidden in Islam, but ... stop killing our innocent people and we will stop."

Tsarnaev arrived in the US when he was eight years old and became a naturalised American citizen in 2012.

Jury selection is expected to take several weeks, as defence lawyers have to agree on all 12 jurors and six substitutes among a pool of 1,200 people.

The potential jurors will be summoned in groups of 200 to 400 in the morning and 200 in the afternoon, and will be whittled down by process of elimination.