Boston (CNN)It's the image we'll always remember: the Boston Marathon bomber flipping the bird.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, already well on his way to being the most hated man in Boston, raised his middle finger to a surveillance camera in his cell at the federal courthouse on July 10, 2013. Later that day, he was arraigned on the 30 counts he now stands convicted of -- setting off the weapons of mass destruction that killed three people at the marathon's finish line and fatally shooting a campus cop between the eyes.
For prosecutors, the image of a defiant defendant, middle finger raised in profane insult, was pure gold. It made it so much easier to demonize Tsarnaev, to argue that he should pay for his crimes with his life.
The battle over the control of images and their spin has always been essential to this case. When Tsarnaev's tousle-haired, softly lit selfie appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, a retired cop was so incensed that he leaked some far less glamorous photos of the defendant. In those, Tsarnaev was bloodied and a laser targeted his forehead as he surrendered in a backyard in Watertown, Massachusetts.
There are so many other images, almost too many to count, and they can't and shouldn't be overlooked. They show the people who are no longer here, and the others who lost part of themselves in the blasts of April 15, 2013.
They're what this trial is really all about.
Federal prosecutors rested their case Thursday after presenting three days of powerful victim impact evidence. One image that sticks with me is a candid photo of Chinese grad student Lingzi Lu grinning and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. Living in the United States was her big adventure, and it lasted just seven months.
Like most of her generation from China, Lingzi was an only child. Her parents, who had expected her to care for them in their old age, encouraged her to pursue her advanced studies in Boston. When she died, they did not take her back to China. They said she was a part of Boston, now, and buried her here in a pink bridal dress and a tiara. Her mother placed a gold hope bracelet on her wrist, and a matching one on her own, before heading back to China.
Lingzi, her aunt said, "was a beautiful nerd."
Two memorable photos tell us who Krystle Campbell was. In one, she wears a frilly red costume and tap shoes. As she got older, her father said, she chose tomboy pursuits. She was always his "Princess," but he seemed proudest of the photo of her in a baseball uniform. She played hardball as a kid, holding her own against the boys. "She had a pretty good arm," he said. And she could hit.
She also had a wide grin and can-do spirit that won friends easily. She was the glue in her family, the one who rounded up all the aunts, uncles and cousins for big gatherings. And, she was the one person her brother felt understood him.
The MIT officer who was killed, Sean Collier, wanted to be a cop his whole life. He came from what his stepfather called a "Brady Bunch family" -- six kids from two marriages. He had two sisters named Jennifer -- "dark-haired Jennifer" and "redhead Jennifer," the family called them.
Collier wouldn't kill bugs, always setting them free outside, his brother said. And when they played cops and robbers, he was always the cop.
His essence was forever captured in a photo showing his mom pinning a badge on his chest at his police academy graduation. His face shines with pride.
"That was probably the happiest day of his life," said his stepfather, Joe, who works for the state attorney general.
And then there is Martin Richard, who was 8 when he died the most horrific death imaginable. A writer friend of mine once pondered after a school shooting how one writes an obituary for a child. If it was a good life, he observed, there wouldn't be much to say because it would be uneventful and filled with simple, ordinary pleasures.
And so we are left with images of Martin and his gap-toothed smile, big ears and sprinkling of freckles, wearing a Red Sox uniform or a string of green St. Patrick's Day beads. But the photo nobody can forget is the peace sign on a poster Martin made for a school project and its message: "No more hurting people."
I've seen the other, more disturbing images -- the ones too graphic to show here. Krystle Campbell's mouth opened in a scream, even as her friend, Karen McWatters, pressed their faces together. She held Campbell's hand while the blood drained from her body. "My legs hurt," Campbell said, and then her hand went limp.
Lingzi Lu, her delicate musician's hands covering her eyes, screamed and tried to blot out the horror as she, too, bled to death in the street. A police officer, who stood by her side even after she died, recalled how she couldn't stop vomiting.
We are haunted by the pool of blood in the seat of Collier's squad car, and how it seems almost too red. In the autopsy photo, the bullet hole in his head seems too tidy, considering the damage it did.
Unforgettable, too, is what we saw of Martin, a tiny lump through the smoke as his mother, Denise, kneeled over him and begged him to live. "Please, Martin, please," she cried over and over.
Jurors and spectators heard the blasts and the screams for the first time during the penalty phase of the trial. A high school senior's panicked wailing still rings in our ears; she survived but nearly lost her leg.
In another clip, the first bomb is heard. Somebody says, "What the hell is that? Oh, my God. Something blew up. Oh, my God! Holy s---!" And then a second, louder blast goes off. For a moment, there is only silence, followed by bloodcurdling screams.
Two more images from this trial will haunt everyone who saw them. The first shows Tsarnaev, wearing a white, turned-around ball cap, standing by a tree behind about a dozen children, including Martin Richard. The kids are lined up along a barricade and there's a metal grate around the tree. That's where Tsarnaev dropped his backpack containing a four-quart pressure cooker packed with gunpowder, nails and BBs. It was less than 4 feet away from Martin, who caught the full force of the blast.
In a video shown Thursday, Steve Woolfenden enters the frame as Tsarnaev starts to slink away. Woolfenden is pushing his son, Leo, in a three-wheeled stroller. The bomb goes off and he and Martin and Denise Richard are blown to the sidewalk. Leo sits in his stroller, crying, "Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!"
Woolfenden loses his leg -- he can see his boot, with the foot still in it, next to him on the sidewalk. Leo has a cut on his head and a skull fracture. Denise Richard has shrapnel in her eye, and Martin is obviously beyond saving.
Tsarnaev vanished into the crowd. For two years, the last known image of him was the leaked photo of his surrender. Until Tuesday, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadine Pellegrini asked a jury to make Tsarnaev pay for his crimes with his life. She unveiled the finger photo, a screen grab from a cellblock security camera.
In this phase of the trial, prosecutors must show that Tsarnaev's crimes were especially cruel and heinous, and that his character places him among the worst of the worst criminals.
If Pellegrini was attempting to demonize the defendant, she initially was hugely successful. Spectators gasped in the three courtrooms set aside to accommodate the throngs who attend this trial daily. Even the most jaded members of the media were taken aback.
"Almost three months after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had murdered Krystle Marie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard and Officer Sean Collier, he was here in this courthouse," Pellegini said, setting the scene. She reminded jurors of the "manifesto" Tsarnaev had scrawled in a boat while hiding from police:
"He had one more message to send," she said, ominously.
And there Tsarnaev was, standing on a bench in an orange jumpsuit, his mouth contorted and one eye blackened, raising the third finger salute.
"This is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- unconcerned, unrepentant and unchanged," Pellegrini said. "Without remorse, he remains untouched by the grief and the loss that he caused."
You could almost hear Pellegrini say, "Voila!" as she ended her argument with the stunning visual aid.
The New York Post featured the cellblock photo on its cover, along with the headline: "NO, F*#% YOU! Boston bomber remorseless."
The defense tried to soften the blow on Wednesday, showing the video of the holding cell flip off during cross-examination of a federal marshal.
Frozen in time, the still photo makes it appear as if Tsarnaev is defiant. But in the video, he seems more bored than angry, a 19-year-old kid stuck in a holding cell. His raised middle finger passes quickly, just one gesture among several. His actions seem rooted not in jihad, but in teenage selfie culture.
He paces, preens his thick, curly hair, stands on one foot and pushes his face into the camera. He flashes two fingers in a "V" and then leaves the middle one standing. It only takes a second or two. And then he plops back down on the bench in cell No. 4.
His expression seems more like mugging for the camera.
"I've seen people looking into the camera, yes," Deputy U.S Marshal Gary Olivera acknowledged under cross-examination. "A lot of times people do it to get our attention."
Defense attorney Miriam Conrad suggested in her questioning that the glass covering the lens may be used by inmates as a mirror, and Olivera reluctantly conceded that was possible.
So, what was spun by federal prosecutors as a defiant gesture by an unremorseful jihadist might just be the adolescent preening of a self-absorbed narcissist. It might have been a bit of an oversell.
In the end, it really doesn't matter whether Tsarnaev flipped the bird because he's a terrorist or because he's a jerk.
What matters are the images of all those other people, and what he did to them.