Longtime federal appeals court Judge Juan Torruella dies

ALANNA DURKIN RICHER
·2-min read

BOSTON (AP) — Judge Juan Torruella, the first Puerto Rican to sit on a U.S. federal appeals court, died Monday at the age of 87, the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Toruella served nearly four decades on 1st Circuit and took part in such high-profile rulings as the tossing of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence this year.

First Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard called him “a wise decision-maker, a brilliant scholar, and a passionate participant in the pursuit of justice.”

“As a judge, his judicial legacy in the First Circuit and Puerto Rico will remain unsurpassed,” Howard said in a statement.

He was appointed to the court in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. A decade later, he replaced Judge Stephen Breyer as chief judge of the 1st Circuit when Breyer was elevated to the Supreme Court. Torruella served as chief until 2001.

Torruella was part of a three-judge panel that unanimously overturned Tsarnaev’s death sentence in July and ordered a new trial to decide whether he should be put to death for the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. The court said the judge who oversaw Tsarnaev’s trial did not adequately screen jurors for potential biases.

Federal prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

In 2015, Torruella dissented as part of a different three-judge panel that ruled that Tsarnaev’s case could stay in Massachusetts.

In a concurring opinion with the decision vacating Tsarnaev’s death sentence, Torruella again argued that Tsarnaev’s trial should never have been held in Boston, saying if his case didn’t merit a change of venue, none would.

“The physical and emotional wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the events of the following week, flooded the residents of the Eastern Division with sorrow, fear, and anger,” he wrote. “Few crimes have been as offensive and devastating to an entire community than those committed by the Tsarnaev brothers. But for even the most heinous of offenses, our system of justice demands vigorous protection — both in appearance and fact — of a defendant’s right to a fair trial and sentencing.”

Torruella was also on a three-judge panel that last month heard arguments in a case brought by a group that accuses Harvard University of intentional discrimination against Asian American students who apply to the Ivy League school. Students for Fair Admissions is asking the appeals court to overturn a trial-level judge’s 2019 decision finding that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling described Torruella as “a strong advocate for the rights of Puerto Ricans” who “spent his career advocating for their equal rights as U.S. citizens.”

“His insight and passion for the law will be missed,” Lelling said in an emailed statement.