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Judge sets November trial for accused Boston bomber

Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo
Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - The accused Boston Marathon bomber will face trial in November, a U.S. judge said on Wednesday, denying a request by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's attorneys for more time to prepare a defense on charges tied to the largest mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Attorneys for the 20-year-old native of Russia's Chechnya region argued that they needed more time to review massive amounts of evidence. Tsarnaev faces the threat of execution if convicted of the April 15 attack that killed three people, injured 264 and drew a massive security response, including a lockdown of the greater Boston area.

In addition to thousands of pages of files, computer records and security camera photographs, attorneys need to comb through some 2,000 pieces of physical evidence including shards of shrapnel from the blast site and damaged vehicles.

Charges against Tsarnaev also include shooting dead a university police officer three days after the bombing, as he and his brother tried to flee the area after they were identified as suspects.

"This is a unique case, obviously," said U.S. District Judge George O'Toole, after he ordered jury selection to begin on November 3, well ahead of the September 2015 start the defense requested.

"I will say to both sides that this is undoubtedly going to be a lengthy trial, but you should keep in mind that not everything that can be presented for either side needs to be presented, necessarily," O'Toole said at a hearing at U.S. District Court in Boston, about 2 miles from the site of the attack, where a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs detonated at the marathon finish line.

NOT 'DRAGGING' FEET

Defense attorney Judy Clarke, a death penalty specialist from California, said prosecutors were moving slowly in sharing evidence, particularly some 2,000 items recovered by investigators that are being held at an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia.

"We've had a little bit of a sluggish, shall I say, start to reviewing physical evidence," Clarke said. "It's not the defense dragging its feet, it's that we're really struggling with getting access to information."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty said prosecutors were responding promptly to defense requests for information.

"We're going above and beyond what we probably need to do to make what they need available to them," he told the judge.

O'Toole ordered prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with a list of the physical evidence.

One legal expert said the November start date for a trial that prosecutors expect to last 12 weeks presents a challenge for defense attorneys.

"Because of the extensive investigation and the amount of law enforcement resources utilized after the Boston Marathon, there will be considerable material which the defense has to digest so that Mr. Tsarnaev can get a fair trial," said Boston College Law Professor Robert Bloom.

Tsarnaev, who is being held in a prison west of Boston and was not in court on Wednesday, has pleaded not guilty to charges including use of a weapon of mass destruction.

His attorneys have not yet said if they will seek to have his trial moved from Boston, where memories are still raw of the attack that killed Martin Richard, 8, Krystle Campbell, 29, and Chinese national Lu Lingzi, 23.

Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, are accused of planting the bombs. Three days after the bombing, FBI investigators released surveillance photos showing the pair, wearing baseball caps and carrying backpacks, near the site of the blast. That prompted the brothers to attempt a hasty escape.

Authorities say they shot Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer Sean Collier, 27, in an unsuccessful attempt to steal his weapon. A car chase and gun battle with police ensued, ending with Tamerlan dead.

Dzhokhar escaped that encounter, prompting a day-long lockdown of most of the Boston area until police found him, hiding in a dry-docked boat in a suburban backyard, on the evening of April 19.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by David Gregorio)

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