Twenty months after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev crawled out of a boat in a backyard in Watertown, Massachusetts, bloodied after a shoot-out with police that killed his older brother, the now 21-year-old suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings is to go on trial.
Jury selection in the federal death penalty case began Monday in Boston after the judge rejected repeated appeals from his lawyers to delay the trial and to move it elsewhere. In the court's first session for jury selection, Judge George O'Toole told prospective jurors to expect the trial to start on Jan. 26 and to last three to four months. Tsarnaev, who was in court on Monday, did not appear to make eye contact with jurors and was fidgeting a little in his seat. The next jury selection session starts at 1 p.m.
"You do not need to have any special education to be a juror," O'Toole told prospective jurors, "just a commitment to justice."
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Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who came to the United States with his family about a decade ago, is accused of setting two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon with his brother, Tamerlan, in April 2013. The explosions killed an 8-year-old boy and two young women, and injured more than 260 others, some of whom lost limbs.
Days later, the brothers also shot and killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the indictment against Tsarnaev charges.
The younger Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, has been described as a well-liked, laid-back student who had adjusted to life in Cambridge. He was captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin wrestling team, took honors classes, attended his school’s prom and was enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
His friends struggled to reconcile the teenager they knew with a militant Muslim who would kill in retaliation for U.S. foreign policy, as prosecutors charge. Had he been radicalized by his older brother, who had visited Dagestan and Chechnya in 2012? Did he fear Tamerlan because he believed Tamerlan had earlier killed three men in Waltham, Massachusetts — murders that have gone unsolved but for which the Tamerlan is a suspect?
If the trial provides answers, they will likely come later in the proceedings. Once the jurors are selected, in a process that could take weeks, they must first decide whether Tsarnaev is guilty, and if he is, whether he should be sentenced to death. Many expect the defense to focus on the penalty phase in an attempt to save Tsarnaev’s life.
“The government’s case on guilt is pretty much overwhelming from what we understand,” said Michael Coyne, a professor at the Massachusetts School of Law who has studied the evidence that's publicly available.
That evidence includes a video that appears to show Tsarnaev leaving a bomb-laden backpack near Martin Richard, the boy who was killed, and the message that Tsarnaev is accused of scrawling on the inside of the boat as he lay hidden from the police searching for him.
“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” read a message found on the inside walls and beam of the boat, according to the indictment against Tsarnaev. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”
The 30-count indictment, which includes 17 charges that carry the death penalty, alleges that Tsarnaev used improvised bombs made from pressure cookers, explosive powder and shrapnel. It says that an issue of al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine found on his computer had instructions for building explosives using pressure cookers and that another publication that he had downloaded advocated violence against enemies of Islam.
More evidence against Tsarnaev that has not yet been made public will likely come out in the trial, Coyne said.
If Tsarnaev had thought he would become a martyr, as the message inside the boat would suggest, the presence of famed defense lawyer Judy Clarke on his team would seem to indicate he has changed his mind. She is well known for convincing juries to spare the lives of her clients, among them the so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and Jared Loughner, who shot former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords point blank and killed six people in Arizona.
Observers say the defense could be trying to show that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was so in thrall of his older brother that he had little choice but to participate in the bombings.
Brad Bailey, a criminal defense lawyer in Boston, said it appeared from court filings that Tsarnaev’s lawyers were focused on possible mitigating factors that include emotional disturbance, potential diminished mental capacity, lack of criminal record and his youth.
“We’ve seen a lot of requests that suggest that they are trying to obtain evidence that would show that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was either afraid of his older brother and afraid not to do things that he may have been directed to do or that he was potentially brainwashed by his older brother,” Bailey said.
Alice LoCicero, a psychologist in Cambridge and the author of the book, “Why ‘Good Kids’ Turn Into Deadly Terrorists: Deconstructing the Accused Boston Marathon Bombers and Others Like Them,” said that she thought a variety of factors could have contributed to radicalizing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Those range from the lack of attention from his parents, who both eventually returned to the Dagestan region of Russia, to his age, to sophisticated recruiting efforts, to grievances he might have had over the way that Muslims have been treated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was left to try to integrate on his own whatever past trauma his family suffered with his current life in the United States, she said.
“You have a kid who’s really a good kid who means to do right who gets really confused about what’s right and what’s wrong and how he can best serve a cause that’s important to him, who probably has some legitimate grievances,” she said.
Though the judge, U.S. District Court Judge George O’Toole Jr., has refused to move the trial, he could still change his mind even after jury selection has begun, lawyers say. Tsarnaev’s lawyers have argued that so much of Boston was affected by the bombings that it will be impossible to find an impartial panel of jurors. The trial of Timothy McVeigh, accused of a similar bombing in Oklahoma City, was held in Denver.
“If the trial is not moved you can be sure that this will be the cornerstone of an appeal,” said Randy Chapman, a defense lawyer in Boston.
Some lawyers also say that it is still possible that Tsarnaev and the government could reach an agreement in which Tsarnaev would forego a trial in return for a life sentence without the chance of parole.