The announcement ended months of speculation over the issue. Although Holder has said that he is personally opposed to the death penalty, the bombing was among the worst terrorist attacks in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
The decision sets the stage for the biggest federal capital murder case since Timothy McVeigh went on trial for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police in April, constructed and set off homemade bombs near the finish line of the marathon, according to investigators. Tsarnaev faces multiple counts in the April 15 bombing and is also accused of killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer in the days after the attack.
The U.S. attorney in Boston, Carmen Ortiz, said in a statement that prosecutors there supported the decision and that the “trial team is prepared to move forward.”
The case is in its early stages, and prosecutors could yet use the threat of death to strike a plea bargain with the young man and avoid a lengthy trial with bombing victims taking the stand to recount the attack.
Since 1964, the federal government has executed only three people, including McVeigh.
In an interview several months ago, Holder told The Washington Post that he would most likely make the decision late at night at his kitchen table, after reviewing all the information.
Lee Ann Yanni, 32, of Boston, who was wounded in the attack, said she had mixed emotions about the use of the death penalty in the case.
“It’s not going to change what happened,” she said. “I really don’t think there is a right or wrong in this situation. It’s not going to bring anybody back.”
Jarrod Clowery, whose legs were peppered with shrapnel and debris, described himself as “ambivalent” about Holder’s decision.
“I think those boys were tried and convicted by a power higher than all of us the moment they did what they did,” said Clowery, who was one of a group of friends from Stoneham, Mass., near the finish line when the explosives went off. Just two weeks ago, Clowery had more surgery on his ruptured left eardrum.
In May, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 70 percent of those surveyed favored the death penalty in the Boston case.
A trial date has not been set for Tsarnaev, who was badly injured while trying to escape a massive dragnet of FBI agents and local police officers.
Prosecutors will be facing a defense team that includes Judy Clarke, who has successfully kept a number of famous clients off death row, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and serial bomber Eric Rudolph. Both pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
Clarke did not respond to requests for comment.
Many of the victims suffered wounds to their legs because of where the bombs were placed; 16 victims had to have legs amputated.
The attack strained relations with Russia after security officials in Moscow had alerted the FBI to its suspicions that one of the brothers was an Islamic radical in touch with militants in the Caucuses. But Russian officials didn’t provide additional information that might have led the bureau to launch a more serious investigation, perhaps thwarting the attack.
In 2011, FBI agents conducted what is known as an assessment and then closed the case after failing to uncover any indication that the brothers were engaged in terrorism. The FBI interviewed the older brother and other family members but found no evidence that either of the men had become dangerously radicalized.
The assessment was one of approximately 1,000 the FBI’s Boston Field Office conducted in 2011.
A senior FBI official said recently that there was no evidence the brothers, ethnic Chechen refugees, had any assistance from overseas terrorists in carrying out their plan.
The Tsarnaev brothers came to the United States in 2002 from the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Authorities have said Tamerlan Tsarnaev came under the influence of radical Islam and probably recruited his brother to help him with the bombing, a possible line of defense if the case goes to trial.
After the bombing, investigators said a friend linked the older brother to a gruesome triple homicide in Waltham, Mass. Ibragim Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter, said the older brother was connected to the killings in which three men had their throats slashed.
During a May interview in Florida, authorities said that Todashev attacked an FBI agent. The FBI agent shot and killed the Chechen American.
The senior FBI official said the agent who killed Todashev was acting in self-defense and described it as a “clean shoot.” But the FBI has not made public the results of an internal review into the shooting or a larger review that examined the attack.
Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report.