BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Monday began the process of selecting the jury that will hear the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, telling the first of some 1,200 prospects to read no more news accounts about the deadly blasts.Tsarnaev could get the death penalty if convicted of killing three people and injuring more than 260 others by detonating a pair of homemade bombs placed amid a crowd of thousands of spectators at the race’s finish line on April 15, 2013.
The 21-year-old ethnic Chechen and naturalized U.S. citizen has pleaded not guilty to all 30 charges against him.
Tsarnaev, with bushy hair and a light beard, sat quietly between his lawyers during Monday’s proceedings, looking down and fidgeting. He did not speak but nodded curtly at jurors when the judge pointed him out.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole acknowledged that people picked to be among the 12 jurors and six alternates will be aware of the bombing, but reminded prospective jurors that their job during the trial, expected to last three to four months, would be to consider only the evidence presented in court.
The judge told two groups of prospective jurors, each numbering around 200 people, that Tsarnaev is charged in connection with the marathon bombing and the fatal shooting of a police officer three days later.
“The mere fact that before this day you may have read or heard something about this case does not automatically mean that you cannot be a juror,” O’Toole said, while telling prospective jurors to avoid reading future news reports on the case.
“Do not, under any circumstances, do any online research about the case,” O’Toole said.
Similar sessions were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
O’Toole is allowing about three weeks for selection of the jury that will determine both Tsarnaev’s guilt and whether he would be sentenced to death if convicted. The judge said opening statements by prosecutors and defense lawyers would begin around Jan. 26.
Potential jurors were instructed to fill out questionnaires about their backgrounds, which prosecutors and defense lawyers will review to determine which candidates they want the judge to exclude. Jurors were due back in groups of 20 beginning around Jan. 15 for in-person questioning.
A moderate police presence was visible on Monday outside the courthouse. Cruisers patrolled area roadways and officers with dogs walked the perimeter of the courthouse building.
Defense attorneys had sought to have the proceedings moved out of Boston. They argued it would be impossible to find an impartial local jury because of intense news coverage and the fact that thousands of people attended the race or hid in their homes during a day-long lockdown in the greater Boston area after the bombing.
But O’Toole and a federal appeals court blocked the request.
Tsarnaev was arrested four days after the bombing. Prosecutors say he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his 26-year-old brother, also shot and killed a university police officer. The brother died after a wild gun battle with police.
The Tsarnaev brothers were Muslims whose family emigrated to the United States about a decade before the attack. According to prosecutors, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote messages inside of the hull of the drydocked boat where he was discovered hiding four days after the attack indicating political motivation.
The messages included “the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians” and “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished,” according to court papers.
Three people died in the bombing: restaurant manager Krystle Campbell, 29; graduate student Lingzi Lu, 23; and Martin Richard, 8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, 27, was fatally shot three days later.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Will Dunham