Dzhokhar Tsarnaev relative: 'Better to be a dog than the younger son'

Story highlights

  • Jury hears about Tsarnaev's father and his battle with mental illness
  • Elmirza Khozhugov: "It is better to be a dog than the younger son"
  • Defense has family testify in penalty phase of trial in bid to save Tsarnaev from death row

Boston (CNN)Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar "Jahar" Tsarnaev was a quiet, studious boy who looked up to his eldest brother in a dysfunctional home where his parents often quarreled, Tsarnaev's former brother-in-law recalled Wednesday.

Elmirza Khozhugov, the former husband of Dzhokhar's sister Ailina, said the younger Tsarnaev eagerly went along with anything his co-conspirator brother, Tamerlan, said to him.
"There's a saying we have in Chechnya: In a family with seven sons, it is better to be a dog than the younger son," Khozhugov said. "The youngest of the boys is obliged to do the things the older boys tell him."
    It was evening at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan when Khozhugov testified remotely Wednesday in the penalty phase of Tsarnaev's capital murder trial. With his live testimony from Almaty, the defense team sought to bolster its contention that Tsarnaev was merely following the lead of an older brother he admired greatly when he planted a pair of bombs near the marathon's finish line.
    "Tamerlan loved his younger brother, absolutely adored him," Khozhugov said. "Always put himself as the defender of Jahar. Tamerlan was very charismatic, and he was a leader within himself. It was a very easy thing for him to do, being the elder brother."
    Tamerlan died after a shootout with police shortly after the bombings. He was also hit by the car Dzhokhar was driving as he fled the shootout.

    'Happy in life'

    The jury also heard about Tsarnaev's father, Anzor, and his long battle with mental illness.
    Anzor heard voices screaming or whispering his name, saw little lizard-like creatures and animal faces, and suffered panic attacks and insomnia, according to medical records read into evidence Wednesday.
    A day earlier, psychiatrist Alexander Niss told the jury that Anzor exhibited the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after being tortured at a prison camp during the Russian-Chechen wars.
    "He was a very sick guy," Niss said. "He was hallucinating. He had a lot of paranoia. He was afraid of KGB. He was looking through his window at his home."
    The mental illness may have played a role in Anzor's troubles with his wife, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva.
    "The relationship between the parents wasn't an exemplary one," Khozhugov told the jury. "They had a lot of arguments, and they had a lot of conflicts. ... I would say the mother, Zubeidat, had more authority than the father did."
    Anzor and Tsarnaev's mother later divorced.

    'I'm done. I'm sorry'

    On Wednesday, the defense attempted to soften the impact of the prosecution's image of a defiant Tsarnaev raising his middle finger to a surveillance camera in his cell at the federal courthouse on July 10, 2013.
    Deputy U.S. Marshal Kevin Michael Roche, who escorted the prisoner, was asked about the image. Roche said he and his supervisor talked with Tsarnaev after the video was recorded.
    "We asked him if he was going to be a problem for the rest of the day and he said, 'No, I'm done. I'm sorry,' " Roche said.
    Growing up in Massachusetts, the younger Tsarnaev was quiet and liked to spend time delving into books and writing. His mother sometimes proudly posted his grades on the refrigerator of the family's crammed two-bedroom Cambridge apartment for visitors to see.
    But it was Tamerlan who played the father figure, Khozhugov recalled. The brothers spent a lot of time alone.
    "Every day he would talk to Jahar about how he was doing in school, and how he should be doing," Khozhugov said. "Tamerlan couldn't find enough words to express his love for his younger brother, and what he could do for Jahar to be successful and happy in life."
    The defense team's portrayal of Tsarnaev differs starkly from the prosecution's portrait of a cold and unremorseful young man.
    A jury last month found Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts related to the bomb attacks and their aftermath, which left four people dead. Seventeen of those counts could send him to death row.
    Khozhugov is not subject to sanctions for perjury because he did not take the stand on U.S. soil. The jury can discount his testimony if it chooses. He was the only male relative to testify after four of five female relatives who were brought to the United States delivered emotional testimony earlier this week.

    Stopped boxing

    Khozhugov, who was questioned by defense lawyer Judy Clarke, said he married Dzhokhar's sister Ailina in 2006. He was 20; she was 15. The marriage fell apart when he struck her during an argument over her Facebook contacts.
    "I lost my temper and put my hands on her," he said. "As a result of that, I got arrested, and we got divorced."
    Tamerlan once introduced Khozhugov to an Armenian friend who was a convert to Islam. His name was Misha, and he was a mentor of sorts to Tamerlan, Khozhugov said. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva welcomed Misha, who engaged in conversations about religion and politics.
    Tamerlan started to change during his friendship with Misha. He quit boxing and an acting class, Khozhugov said. He lost interest in music and began talking about conspiracy theories he picked up on the Internet.
    "He particularly told me that Misha told him it was not appropriate in Islam to box and that is why he stopped," he said.
    The last witness Wednesday was former Federal Bureau of Prisons official Mark Bezy, who described what life would be like for Tsarnaev if he is sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
    Bezy said a prisoner such as Tsarnaev would be held under so-called special administrative measures. Aimed at cutting off an inmate's contact with the outside world, the measures forbid contact with other prisoners and limit visits to immediate family. Inmates are housed in single cells in supermax prisons. Only the U.S. attorney general or the FBI can remove the restrictions.
    Earlier this week, Raisat Suleimanov remembered her cousin Dzhokhar as a sweet boy with a big smile who wept when Mufasa, Simba's father in the animated movie, "The Lion King," was killed by Scar, his evil brother.
    "He was very sorry the lion died," she said.
    On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb started to ask Suleimanov a question: "You agree that the person who cries at the death of a cartoon character but is indifferent to the suffering of hundreds ..." His question was cut short by a defense objection, and he wasn't allowed to finish. But Weinreb's point was clear.
    A Moscow nurse and mother of a 3-year-old, Suleimanov traveled from Russia to Boston, she told defense attorney William Fick in Russian, to testify Monday.
    Tsarnaev showed a rare glimmer of emotion during Monday's hearing, dabbing his eyes as a Russian aunt, who hadn't seen him since he was a child, broke down in tears on the witness stand.
    Patimat Suleimanov was so overcome by emotion that she was asked to step down and compose herself.
    Other female relatives described Tsarnaev as a sweet child, but they took pains to disavow the bombings and any form of radical Islam.
    "I categorically reject what he did. It's a great tragedy, of course," Raisat Suleimanov said.

    'This child has changed me'

    Referring to Tsarnaev as her brother because she said she feels "very close" to her male cousins, Suleimanov told the court how her family would spend summers with the Tsarnaevs in Kaspiysk, along the Caspian Sea. She last saw him when he was 8, she testified.
    Their aunt, she said, was strict with the children -- "We couldn't go out of bounds with her" -- but Tsarnaev's kindness and his reaction to Musafa's death changed her. She became more loving, even with the children, Suleimanov said.
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    "My aunt said, 'I can't understand how such a small child could sympathize, could understand such tragedy,' " Suleimanov recalled. "When Jahar was staying with her, with his kindness he changed her. He could do whatever he wanted. She even said herself, 'This child has changed me.' "
    Another cousin, Nabisat Suleimanov, told jurors Tsarnaev was warm, caring and "one would want to hug him and not let him go. He was an unusual child."
    She, too, remembered the effect Tsarnaev had on her aunt, who loved young Tsarnaev so much that she even excused some rather inappropriate behavior from him, which the other children couldn't understand.
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    "She's a very stern woman. She worked in the security forces and was very pedantic and made her children follow the rules all the time. And when Jahar appeared, she changed drastically. She would even let him urinate in the sink in the kitchen, and it was very strange for us."
    Both cousins appeared nervous on the stand. And while Raisat Suleimanov remembered the Tsarnaevs being Muslim, they didn't come off as all that devout, she said. They didn't pray five times a day, for instance, she said.
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