Jahar Tsarnaev’s defense to focus not on what he did, but why

Jahar Tsarnaev’s defense to focus not on what he did, but why

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In her opening statement, defense attorney Judy Clarke paints a picture of Jahar as being subservient to his older, more radicalized brother, Tamerlan

Remembering the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing
Remembering the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing

BOSTON, March 6, 2014 — The trial of Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, the accused Boston Marathon bomber, opened last week. In her opening statement, lead defense attorney Judy Clarke admits that Tsarnaev carried out the criminal acts that the government has accused him of.

“If the only question was whether Tamerlan and Jahar committed these crimes, there should be no question that the defendant did it,” said defense attorney Judy Clarke in her opening statements.

Clarke’s defense seems to center not on what Tsarnaev did, but why.

The prosecution and the defense agree that the evidence proves that in April 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 21, and his now-deceased older brother Tamerlan remotely detonated two homemade bombs in a densely packed crowd at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and injuring over 200.

Read Also: Boston Marathon terrorist in custody: Timeline of events

Three days later, the brothers shot and killed MIT security officer Sean Collier in his cruiser, then drove to Boston, where they carjacked Dung Ming in his Mercedes with the intention of fleeing to New York to plant more bombs.

The crime spree came to an abrupt end on the early morning hours of April 19, when Tamerlan was killed in a shoot-out with the police in the sleepy suburban streets of Watertown, Mass. Jahar fled the scene on foot, starting a manhunt that trapped thousands of Boston area residents in their homes while hundreds of state and federal law enforcement officers combed the streets of Watertown.

Jahar Tsarnaev was eventually discovered hiding unarmed in a dry-docked boat just blocks from where his brother was killed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb told the jury in his opening statement that it doesn’t matter what role each brother played, “so long as you find they were partners and carried out these crimes together.”

Defense attorney Judy Clarke argues that Jahar should be held accountable for his part in the crimes, but that he was manipulated by his older brother into committing the crimes. She also told the jury that the reason for the trial is that the defense disagrees with the government as to what degree Jahar should be held accountable for his actions.

Legal experts have suggested that Jahar decided to “come clean” to gain credibility in the eyes of the jury. By taking responsibility for his actions, Jahar may hope to avoid the death penalty during the sentencing phase of the trial if he is found guilty.

Moreover, holding the trial even though Jahar has admitted guilt preserves the defendant’s right to appeal the verdict.

Read Also:  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev charged with federal crimes, possible death sentence

Clarke stated, “The evidence will show clearly that Tamerlan became obsessed with radical Islam and that he became aggressively obsessed with talking about Islam.” She added, “Tamerlan disrupted services at a mosque where he once fit in. It was Tamerlan who self-radicalized, and it was Jahar who followed.”

At that point, Judge O’Toole interrupted the defense, saying, “There is very little evidence of that, but go ahead with what you are saying.”

O’Toole later interrupted the defense to remind Clarke that “discussion of family history is not appropriate.”

Previously, O’Toole issued rulings severely restricting what the defense can disclose relative to the Tsarnaev family’s religious culture and their sometimes adversarial relationship with the government. Those facts include the following:

  • The Tsarnaev family are Muslims who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 2002. Jahar is the youngest of four siblings.
  • Police reports show that Tamerlan, the oldest, was arrested in 2009 after he admitted to assaulting an ex-girlfriend.
  • At the time of his death, Tamerlan, age 26, was a married father of one daughter, age 3. His death certificate says he was “never employed.”
  • According to Newsweek, in 2009, Tamerlan reported to the Boston police that his father Anzor was assaulted by an angry mob outside the Russian Benevolent Society. The beating fractured Anzor’s skull and left him too disabled to work consistently.
  • In 2011, Jahar’s parents divorced. In June 2012, Jahar’s mother, Zubeidat, was charged with shoplifting at a Lord and Taylor department store in Natick, Mass. By July 2012, both parents moved back to their native Dagestan, leaving Jahar, 18, primarily in his older brother’s care.
  • Tsarnaev sisters Ailina and Bella have had encounters with the law.
  •  In 2013, Bella pled guilty in New Jersey to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
  • That same year, Massachusetts authorities charged Ailina, 24, with lying to police in connection with a 2010 incident where she refused to disclose to authorities the identities of her friends who had used counterfeit money to pay their tab at an Applebee’s restaurant.

It is not clear whether the defense will be allowed to present any evidence regarding government errors that may have contributed to the April 2013 bombings.

In October 2013, Senator Chuck Grassley issued a scathing letter to Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James B. Comey Jr., calling into question law enforcement’s handling of the investigations into the Tsarnaev brothers before and after the bombings.

In response, the government issued a report in 2014 that conceded that law enforcement agents in Russia and the United States had been tracking the Tsarnaev family. The report indicated that the efforts focused on whether Tamerlan had ties to militant Islamic groups, but failed to detect any terrorist activity.

Motions filed by the defense in March 2014 show that prosecutors have denied having any evidence to show that the FBI ever approached Tamerlan to become an informant or conduct surveillance on the Chechen or Muslim communities on their behalf as a part of the controversial Countering Violent Extremist (CVE) programs. However, the fact that family members say this did occur is expected to become an issue at sentencing.

Defense motions indicate that they intend to provide evidence that Tamerlan was mentally ill and unstable in the years leading up to the bombings:

“We further have reason to believe that Tamerlan misinterpreted the visits and discussions with the FBI as pressure and that they amounted to a stressor that increased his paranoia and distress. We do not suggest that these contacts are to be blamed or have evidence to suggest that they were improper, rather we view them as an important part of Tamerlan’s decline.”

In order to show that Tamerlan was in fact the aggressor and that Jahar was acting in a fearful and subservient capacity to his brother, the defense is also expected to present evidence from the FBI’s deadly interview with Ibrahim Todashev, who allegedly implicated Tamerlan in a 2011 Waltham triple homicide.

Todashev was shot and killed by the FBI during an interview session in his Florida home in May 2013.

Read Also: Boston bombings, Tea Party, the media, and hypocrisy

There has been no evidence presented to suggest that law enforcement had any contact with Jahar prior to the April 2013 bombings.

“Jahar came to his role by a very different path than what is suggested by the prosecution,” said Clarke, “a path that he was drawn into by his brother’s passion and plan, a path that led him to Boylston street.”

Clarke also noted in her opening remarks that most of the jurors acknowledged during jury selection that they knew something about this case. Many also indicated they knew people whose lives who had been changed by the marathon bombings.

“Not one of you would be sitting here unless you had also told us that you could keep an open mind and hold your questions until appropriate phase. Holding your hearts and minds open is what we ask of you, and it is going to be a difficult task.”

When the defense finished, O’Toole asked jurors to “please keep in mind that opening statements are not evidence.”

Anne Stevenson is reporting from the Boston courtroom 

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