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Recommendation on death penalty for accused Boston bomber near

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, suspect #2 in the Boston Marathon explosion is pictured in this undated FBI handout photo. REUTERS/FBI/Handout
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, suspect #2 in the Boston Marathon explosion is pictured in this undated FBI handout photo. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

By Richard Valdmanis

BOSTON (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors in Massachusetts will decide within a week whether to recommend the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if he is convicted in the Boston Marathon bombing.

The prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz told a court hearing on Tuesday that the sentencing recommendation would go to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who will have until January 31 to make the final say on the government's recommended punishment for the 20-year-old ethnic Chechen.

Tsarnaev is accused of detonating twin pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the world-renowned foot race on April 15, killing three people and injuring 264, many of them losing limbs. It was the worst attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.

In the hearing before U.S. District Court Judge George O'Toole Jr., attorneys for Tsarnaev accused the government of throwing up unfair obstacles to hinder preparation of their client's defense.

They said an initial proposal by prosecutors to hold the trial in the fall of 2014 was "completely unworkable," given the complexity of the case and complained that the government was not sharing important evidence.

They also argued that restrictive terms on Tsarnaev's confinement - including limits on who can speak to him or relay information to and from him during his incarceration - posed a threat to its ability to prepare a defense case.

"This is not a level playing field," defense attorney Miriam Conrad told the court. "It appears the government is trying to retain every possible advantage in this case for itself."

Judge O'Toole said it was too early to set a trial date, deferred a decision on evidence sharing and agreed to let the prosecution and defense negotiate on Tsarnaev's prison restrictions, possibly drawing up a list of people allowed to interact with him on the defense's behalf.

The restrictions were put in place by the U.S. Justice Department over concerns that Tsarnaev could communicate messages that might trigger another attack.

Tsarnaev is being kept separate from other prisoners at the facility west of Boston where he is being held awaiting trial. His lawyers have been ordered not to share messages from Tsarnaev with the outside world.

Prosecutors contend that Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, planted the two homemade bombs at the race's finish line, and three days later killed a university police officer in an unsuccessful attempt to steal his gun. A gunbattle with police ensued, and Tamerlan died.

Dzhokhar fled and was found hiding in a drydocked boat late on April 19, after a daylong manhunt.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the Justice Department over Tsarnaev's treatment in prison, saying his isolation threatens his right to a fair trial. Judge O'Toole barred the ACLU from weighing in at the hearing.

Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

(Additional reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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