They said a jury in this progressive city would never go for the death penalty. They said defense attorney Judy Clarke was unbeatable. And they were wrong. They didn’t know how powerful witnessing terrorism and its aftermath can be.
The 13th Juror
In the end, 12 people who spent the past 10 weeks thinking about little else but the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings took just 14 hours to agree that 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed for the worst of his crimes – leaving the bomb that killed a grad student and a little boy near the finish line.
Clarke’s winning streak ended with an outright rejection of her attempts to humanize Tsarnaev as a man-child influenced by an obsessed older brother. The jury held him responsible for his bomb, and his bomb alone.
I think this was a smart jury. They were able to parse the complex legal concepts of conspiracy, reserving the most severe punishment for Tsarnaev’s own actions.
Tsarnaev faced death on 17 counts, but the jury found just six merited the death penalty. They involved the killing of Martin Richard, 8, and Lingzi Lu, 23. Both bled to death in the street after literally being torn apart by hot shrapnel.
Tsarnaev will receive a sentence of life without parole for the death of Krystle Campbell, who was killed by a bomb carried into the crowd by his older brother, Tamerlan, who died days later in a gun battle with police.
And the jury resisted punishing the surviving Tsarnaev brother with the death penalty for the ambush and assassination of MIT police officer Sean Collier. To this day, we don’t know for sure which brother pulled the trigger.
But here’s what really surprised me and many of the people who watched the trial: The defense case simply did not resonate. In fact, it fell completely flat.
Even Sister Helen Prejean, the funny, charming nun of “Dead Man Walking” fame, couldn’t save Tsarnaev.
I listened carefully to Sister Helen, looking for any sign of real remorse from the college student-turned-prisoner she met with five times behind bars. Surely he must feel some regret by now.
But the nun could say only that she believed Tsarnaev was sorry. All he told her was, “No one deserves to suffer like they did.”
Never did he acknowledge he was the one responsible for that suffering, and not once did he tell her, “I’m sorry.”
The jurors needed to hear him say that. They needed to see some sign of remorse behind what appeared to be a mask of bored indifference.
So, prosecutors Steve Mellin and Bill Weinreb were able to run with the ball. They portrayed Tsarnaev in closing arguments as a callous terrorist so convinced of the righteousness of his cause that he felt nothing after killing innocents and causing hundreds of people a lifetime of grief, disfigurement and pain.
They said he was so remorseless, he bought milk at a Whole Foods Market in Cambridge 22 minutes after the bombing and later tweeted “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city.”
Even putting the best possible spin on it in, Clarke couldn’t say Tsarnaev was sorry. The best she could do was say he was on the road to “maturity” and maybe some day being remorseful. She urged jurors to spare him in the hope that he might find redemption.
It wasn’t enough.
In making their decision, jurors had to weigh aggravating factors – things that prosecutors said made this crime so bad it merited the death penalty – against mitigating factors – things the defense cited as reasons to show mercy and spare his life.
Only two of the 12 jurors found that Tsarnaev had expressed any remorse.
And, only two found that his dysfunctional family played a role in turning him into a terrorist bomber. Just one juror found that his mother’s embrace of radical Islam left Tsarnaev without the parental support and guidance he needed as a teen.
The “Tamerlan made me do it” defense flopped, too. Just three jurors found that his older brother led him into the crime.
To buy into the defense theory, jurors had to see some emotion in this defendant. And it just wasn’t there. He cried only once in court, when an elderly Russian aunt took the stand and broke down in tears. He cried for his own people, not theirs, and that doesn’t play in “Boston Strong” country.
I have seen juries hand down death sentences more times than I can count. The first time, I went home and cried. The defendant looked like Kenny Rogers, and I lost it when I turned on the TV that night in the middle of a Kenny Rogers Christmas special.
I don’t cry anymore at death verdicts. But anyone who has dealt with bureaucracy can understand a discomfort with giving the government the power to kill its own citizens. There’s no do-over if the bureaucrats mess things up.
And I understand people who think the death penalty just continues the cycle of violence. But I have no idea how I’d feel if somebody killed someone I love. I suspect I’d want to execute him or her with my own hands.
If you saw the trial I saw, it’s not difficult to understand how, if we’re going to have the death penalty, this is the type of crime it is intended to punish.
This trial brought terrorism out of the Gitmo gridlock and into a U.S. courtroom, if not our living rooms. It’s just as well that federal trials aren’t televised because this one was over-the-top gruesome. We saw a little kid and two young women get blown up. We knew when a baby-faced rookie cop was dying by the way the brake lights in his patrol car flashed on and off as two figures ran into the shadows.
And then we got to know the people who were lost. That was much, much worse because they all were vibrant and living life as the adventure it is meant to be.
I keep going back to grad student Lingzi Lu, her father’s “jolly elf,” and the poem he wrote and read at her memorial service. The child in the poem tells her parents not to cry, promising, “If there is an afterlife, I will be your daughter again!” An only child, she had been in the United States just seven months when Tsarnaev’s bomb found her on an afternoon too nice to spend indoors studying.
There was so much testimony about lives lost or forever changed. The victims who died were loved and are sorely missed by people just like us.
We in the courtroom heard one bomb go off, and saw the other leave broken bodies in a cloud of smoke. We heard the screams and an awful kind of wailing. We saw bones protruding from torn flesh and pools of blood that seemed too brightly red.
But we couldn’t feel the heat the bombs left on the sidewalk, and we couldn’t smell what witnesses described as the vile, sickening odor of burned flesh and hair, blood, and gunpowder.
We can’t really know what it feels like to hold your broken, dying 8-year-old son in your arms and beg him to please, please live. We can’t know what it’s like to have to make the terrible choice between who you can save and who you have to let go.
We can’t know that, and neither could the seven women and five men on the jury. But they could imagine, and that was enough.
Grief hung so heavily in Courtroom 9 of the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse. At times it felt like a crushing weight.
The courthouse is a beautiful brick building with polished floors and big, bright windows overlooking Boston Harbor. But sunny days were few, and it feels like we’ve been attending a funeral every day since the beginning of March.
At last it is time to pack up and leave this sadness. The reporters, lawyers and spectators don’t have to live with it. But so many others do. And no one who witnessed what happened in that courtroom will ever be the same.