Life in prison means no martyrdom for Tsarnaev, defense argues

Story highlights

  • Defense planning to show Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a puppet of his dominant older brother
  • A deadlocked jury would result in an automatic life sentence for Tsarnaev

Boston (CNN)Sending Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to prison for the rest of his life would bring years of punishment and rob him of martyrdom, jurors were told Monday.

"We have seen more pain and more horror and more grief in this courtroom than any of you would have thought possible," attorney David Bruck said as Tsarnaev's defense team began what could be a two-week campaign to avoid the death penalty.
"No punishment could ever be equal to the terrible effects of this crime on the survivors and the victims' families," he said. "There is no evening of the scales. There is no point of trying to hurt him as he hurt because it can't be done. All we can do, all you can do is make the best choice."
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    Bruck told jurors there are only two punishments for them to choose from: death or life in prison without any possibility of parole.
    "We are asking you to punish Jahar by imprisoning him for the rest of his life."
    Showing the court a photo of the federal supermax prison in Colorado, Bruck said:
    "This is where the government keeps other terrorists who used to be famous but aren't anymore. ... He goes here and he's forgotten. No more spotlight, like the death penalty brings.
    "No interviews with the news media, no autobiography, no messages from Jahar on the Internet. No nothing.
    "No martyrdom. Just years and years of punishment, day after day, as he grows up to face the lonely struggle of dealing with what he did.
    "The evidence will show that if you sentence Jahar to a lifetime of thinking about what he did, you'll both punish him and protect society."
    Tsarnaev, 21, was convicted this month of all 30 counts against him; 17 of those counts carry the death penalty for the murders of four: Krystle Campbell, 29; Lingzi Lu, 23; Martin Richard, 8; and Sean Collier, 26.

    Arguments and email exchanges

    The ghost of older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a gunbattle with police, hung over the courtroom during the first day of defense testimony. The defense team is trying to convince jurors that life in prison is a more appropriate punishment for the 21-year-old former college student. As usual, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat impassively at the defense table.
    The defense asserts that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the driving force behind the bombings. The first eight witnesses included leaders of Boston's Muslim community, shopkeepers, Tamerlan's mother-in-law, a classmate and a former music teacher.
    They painted a picture of a Russian-born immigrant who struggled to fit in, was proud of his physique and boxing ability and became increasingly strident about his religious beliefs.
    He grew his hair and beard, donned flowing white robes, and engaged in arguments with people he felt weren't Muslim enough, the witnesses testified.
    Twice he interrupted Friday prayer services at the Cambridge mosque, shouting out that the imam, who was delivering a message of inclusiveness, was a hypocrite.
    The defense also played a video, taken from Tamerlan Tsarnaev's phone, which showed his young daughter climbing monkey bars and going down a slide, belly down. Her father can be heard laughing heartily and repeatedly saying, "Allah akbar."
    Jurors also saw records that indicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev kept a YouTube playlist he called "Terrorists."
    He peppered his younger brother, known to friends as Jahar, with email containing links to al Qaeda inspired messages, including a video about the "martyrdom" of Osama bin Laden. Jahar, in turn, sent his brother pictures of cars.
    In deciding whether the younger Tsarnaev brother is executed or spends the rest of his days in a high-security federal prison, jurors must weigh the heinousness of his crimes and the toll on his victims against so-called mitigating factors, such as his relative youth, mental health and family background, and whether he is remorseful.
    Last week, federal prosecutors presented three days of gut-wrenching victim impact testimony, including an array of images showing the victims as happy, active people and edited videos that added a soundtrack featuring a loud explosion, screams and panicked voices to the horrific bombing scene outside the Forum restaurant, where Richard and Lu died.
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    Lead defense attorney Judy Clarke, a nationally known death penalty opponent, has acknowledged that Tsarnaev and his brother set off the bombs and shot MIT police officer Collier. But the defense is building a narrative aimed at showing their client as a puppet of his dominant older brother.
    A shopkeeper described for the jury how Tamerlan became angry at him for selling halal turkey for Thanksgiving.
    A high school classmate of Dzhokhar's who knew both brothers said that while everybody liked Jahar, they found Tamerlan was really intense and a big guy. The witness, Robert Barnes, recalled how Tamerlan once greeted him at a Cambridge pizzeria with a friendly punch in the chest that really hurt. He also recalled how angry Tamerlan became during an argument with a former schoolmate over religion.
    Tamerlan's mother-in-law, Judith Russell, described how her daughter withdrew into his world and adopted his religious beliefs. Her daughter became more serious, and began to cover her head.
    The family did not approve of Tamerlan because he had dropped out of school and did not have a job, she said. She was glad the couple broke up when he cheated on her daughter, and disappointed when they reunited.
    "I didn't really want her to be with him. They didn't seem to be a good match," Russell told jurors. "The only thing driving him was boxing."
    He arrived 90 minutes late for his first meeting with his future in-laws and did not make a good impression, she said.
    Russell said her daughter began to study Islam, even though she had not been religious as a child.
    "I wasn't concerned with her adopting Islam because there was nothing wrong with Islam. I was just worried about the whole package. He wasn't working. It just seemed like she was sacrificing a lot for the relationship."
    The family was not invited to the wedding. At a baby shower held in the Russells' Rhode Island home, Tamerlan's mother sat in the kitchen and talked about her religion.
    "There was some element that she was the queen at the baby shower, wanting and getting attention," Russell said.
    During cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Weinreb asked: "When Tamerlan and your daughter were at your house, they seemed like a normal couple, didn't they?"
    "What's a normal couple?" Russell responded.
    Katherine Russell's relationship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev also created distance from her best friend since childhood. Gina Crawford also described Tamerlan's influence and how it changed and isolated the friend she called "Katie."
    She said she texted Russell on the day of the marathon bombings, and Katie responded that she was at work, "about 8 miles from Boston." As far as she knew, Katie texted, Tamerlan was at home in Cambridge.
    Later, when Crawford learned he was involved and had been killed, she sent a text offering to comfort Russell, but received no response. Russell, who used to be fun-loving and "artsy," is just now getting back to being her lighter, more carefree former self, Crawford said.

    'Tamerlan had power over Jahar'

    The defense is hoping to convince jurors just how powerful Tamerlan Tsarnaev's influence could be.
    "The man who conceived, planned and led this crime is beyond our power to punish," Bruck pointed out in his opening statement. "Only the 19-year-old younger brother who helped is left."
    Jahar Tsarnaev was 19 when he and his brother set off their pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As Bruck noted, he was still too young to buy a beer legally "and an age when people make horribly bad, destructive decisions."
    He asked jurors to consider Tsarnaev's age as a mitigating factor that could convince them to spare his life.
    Bruck referred to a photo prosecutors introduced last week -- showing Tsarnaev raising his middle finger at a surveillance camera in his federal courthouse holding cell -- to make his point.
    "I could almost hear you gasp" when that photo was displayed between images of bombing victims, Bruck said. "It turned out that shocking gesture wasn't quite as advertised.
    "What did he mean? It meant he was acting as an immature 19-year-old."
    In his statement, Bruck laid out a road map for the defense case, shifting the focus from the victims to the story of the Tsarnaev family and factors attorneys say fueled such a horrific crime: Chechen history and culture, parents with mental health issues and an adolescent's search for identity.
    "Jahar was a good kid. He was a follower, he didn't really stand up for anything," Bruck said. "In the months before the bombings, it was Tamerlan who became obsessed with jihad, spending hours on his computer."
    During the guilt phase of the trial, jurors saw contents from Jahar's computer, which Bruck admitted "looked awful. ... It made it look like it started with Jahar."
    Now the defense is beginning to show the contents of Tamerlan's computer. Digital forensic expert Gerald Grant testified about the brothers' Yahoo! email accounts: Jahar's included more than 5,500 emails; Tamerlan's had 92. Tamerlan sent his wife and younger brother emails with links to jihadist material.
    "What Tamerlan's computer shows is obsession. He had become obsessed with jihad," Bruck said. "His computer leaves no doubt who drove this crime, the fanatical emotions and ideology that propelled this crime.
    "No one is going to claim that Tamerlan forced Jahar to help him commit these terrible crimes. When Tamerlan decided it was time for these crimes, Jahar went with him. He was all in. But if not for Tamerlan, this would not have happened.
    "Tamerlan had power over Jahar."
    Several members of Tsarnaev's family arrived in Boston over the weekend, but the defense has been closely guarding its witness list. The relatives, who are at an undisclosed location after being forced to leave a suburban hotel, apparently do not include his parents, who divorced and returned to Dagestan before the April 15, 2013, bombings.
    Court filings indicate the defense plans to call expert witnesses to explain Tsarnaev's difficult upbringing as the overlooked child of immigrants, displaced Russian Muslims whose American dream failed.
    Under federal law, the jury's decision must be unanimous. A deadlocked jury would result in an automatic life sentence for Tsarnaev, which means the defense only needs to persuade one juror to spare his life.
    The Boston Globe reported over the weekend that fewer than 20% of those polled in Massachusetts favor the death penalty for Tsarnaev. The number is down substantially since the days after the bombings.