By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge denied a request on Tuesday to move the trials of three friends of the accused Boston Marathon bomber, on charges that they hampered an investigation into the deadly 2013 blasts, outside of Massachusetts.
U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock said he believed it was possible to convene a fair and impartial jury in Boston - where 3 people were killed and 264 wounded in the attacks - though he had also begun arrangements to empanel a jury in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston, in case it were needed.
"A fair and vetted jury will be fair and impartial and will take seriously their responsibilities and can be chosen even in a community where an extraordinary event took place," he said.
Woodlock agreed to requests by the defendants to grant each of the three his own trial rather than to try them together.
Attorneys for the three men, college friends of accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are also expected to seek to forbid prosecutors from reading some of the defendants' early statements to police at their trials.
Their attorneys had argued that the intense publicity surrounding the April 15, 2013, blasts and the upcoming trial of Tsarnaev - the surviving member of a pair of ethnic Chechen brothers also accused of shooting dead a police officer - would make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Boston.
Federal prosecutors contend that three men, Kazakh exchange students Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov and Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident Robel Phillipos, went to Tsarnaev's dorm room three days after the attack and removed a backpack and laptop computer as police searched for the suspected bomber.
Kadyrbayev's trial was set to begin June 30, with Tazhayakov's and Phillipos' to begin in September.
Prosecutors said each of the trials should take about two weeks, meaning that all proceedings would be completed before the scheduled November start of Tsarnaev's trial.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov face charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, which carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison, while Phillipos faces a less serious charge of lying to investigators, which carries a possible 16-year sentence.
The Kazakhs, who have been held in federal custody on immigration violations since their arrest days after the attack, were allowed to appear in court in dress shirts and trousers, rather than prison jumpsuits. Phillipos, who is out on bail, arrived in a light gray business suit and tie.
All three sat quietly in the courtroom as Tuesday's hearing began.
Their lawyers have also asked the judge to strike references to "terrorism" from the charges, noting prosecutors have not contended that the three played any role in the bombing attack.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 20, is awaiting trial on charges linked to the bombing and faces the threat of execution if he is convicted. His older brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died in a gun battle with police three days after the attack as the siblings attempted to escape the city.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by G Crosse and Bernadette Baum)