Tsarnaev defense blames brother but does not seek mercy

Death penalty opponents stood in front of the U.S. District Court in Boston on Monday.

Only 19 percent of Massachusetts residents favor a death sentence for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, according to a survey released Sunday, the day before his defense attorneys began arguments to spare the life of their client. “It seems that voters have concluded that Tsarnaev does not deserve a quick death, but rather should spend the remainder of his days in a windowless cell contemplating the heinous acts that put him there,” the president of the company that conducted the poll, Frank Perullo, told the Boston Globe. “To voters, it would seem death is too easy an escape.”

Perullo’s interpretation of the results was glib and offensive to citizens who oppose capital punishment on the grounds that it is, as Pope Francis has said, “an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person.” It is safe to say that the protesters who have been standing outside the federal courthouse in Boston, as well as many respondents in the poll, do not object to the penalty on the grounds that it is not cruel enough or is “too easy.”


But defense attorney David Bruck came close to echoing Perullo in his opening statement to the jury now charged with deciding between a death sentence and lifetime imprisonment without parole for Tsarnaev, convicted of killing three and wounding more than 260 in the bombings. He showed an aerial photograph of the maximum-security prison in Colorado where Tsarnaev would be expected to serve a life sentence—with 23 hours a day of solitary confinement and one hour of exercise, alone, in an outside cage. The snowy landscape around the featureless buildings gave the impression of a distant, far colder planet. Bruck emphasized the near-total isolation from human contact Tsarnaev would face there, and the patch of sky that is only thing Tsarnaev would ever see outside the prison walls. It is a “clean version of hell,” a former warden told the Boston Globe.

Send him “where he can never be heard from again,” Bruck told the jury. “He goes there and is forgotten. No more spotlight, like the death penalty brings…and no martyrdom.” Later he promised, “There will be no autobiography” and no chance for Tsarnaev to give interviews to the media.

One can argue that there would be value in hearing more from Tsarnaev, who was 19 when he and his brother set off the bombs at the marathon. Could maturity—albeit the unnatural, stunted kind of maturity possible in a maximum-security prison—lead to remorse? Could an evaluation of Tsarnaev over the years result in valuable information about brain development? Would a lifetime sentence be more of a deterrent to others considering terrorist acts if he’s not forgotten?

These are not questions the defense will likely bring up, as Tsarnaev’s lawyers focus on getting a single juror to stop the unanimous verdict needed for an execution. Instead, Bruck suggested that a life sentence, without the years of appeals that accompany death penalty cases, is the quickest way to erase Tsarnaev from public consciousness.

First witness recalls older brother disrupting prayer services

Bruck’s opening statement also outlined the defense strategy of portraying older brother Tamerlan, who was killed during a shoot-out with police, as the one who conceived of the marathon bombings and pressured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to go along. The first witness called by the defense (and subpoenaed) was the manager of a convenience store in Cambridge who encountered Tamerlan several times, both in his store and at prayer services at a nearby Islamic mosque. He recalled two instances of Tamerlan angrily interrupting the prayer leader, or imam—once when the imam urged the congregants to participate in American democracy by voting, and once when he spoke favorably of Martin Luther King, Jr. (an “infidel,” said Tamerlan).

In effect, this first witness set up the argument that Tamerlan rejected fellow Muslims who were adapting to American society, instead using religion as a way to nurture bitterness toward his adopted country, where he had failed at a boxing career and other endeavors.

Seven other witnesses, including his mother-in-law, testified on Monday about Tamerlan’s aggressive personality and increasingly radical religious views. Bruck also noted that several years before the marathon bombings, Tamerlan had briefly gone back to Central Asia (where the Tsarnaev family lived, and moved frequently, before coming the United States in 2002) in search of an opportunity to “wage jihad.”

The defense also highlighted email exchanges between the two brothers, in which Tamerlan sent Dzhokhar links to extremist organizations. With their parents back in Russia, the defense argued, Tamerlan had considerable influence over Dzhokhar, especially given the high status of eldest sons among families with Chechen roots.

When Tamerlan planned the marathon bombings, Bruck said, “his little brother went with him. And when he did, he was ‘all in.’” The job for the defense over the next few weeks is to convince at least one juror that Dzohkhar’s blind sibling loyalty, something Bruck argued was “bred in the bone,” is a mitigating factor against a death sentence.


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