Bombing Trial Raises Questions About the Death Penalty

The trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began last Wednesday, March 4, nearly two years after the race was thrown into chaos when two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line that killed three and injured more than 200.

In her 20-minute opening statement, lawyer for the defense Judy Clark did not attempt to refute that the now-21-year-old Tsarnaev had been involved in the attack.

“It was him,” she said, saying that Mr. Tsarnaev would take responsibility for his “inexcusable” actions.

Photo courtesy of VOA/Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The strategy of the defense seems not to deny the culpability of Mr. Tsarnaev, but to show that the “series of senseless, horribly misguided acts carried out by two brothers” was devised and largely carried out by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed at age 26 in a police shootout several days after the bombing.

Ms. Clark presented Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a normal teen persuaded to act by his older brother, arguing that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s age, the force of his personality and their shared culture gave him significant influence over his younger brother. She contends that Mr. Tsarnaev was following “a path borne of his brother, created by his brother and paved by his brother,” a defense with the apparent goal of avoiding the death penalty for Mr. Tsarnaev in favor of life in prison. He has pled not guilty to 30 charges, 17 of which carry the death penalty.

The prosecution is taking a different angle. Assistant United States attorney William Weinreb gave a 50-minute opening statement in which he described Mr. Tsarnaev as a “terrorist” who wanted to avenge the deaths of Muslims at the hands of American military campaigns.

Federal District Court Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr., who is presiding over the trial, is limiting the defense’s attempts to make the specifics of the bombings irrelevant, reiterating that this part of the trial is to determine guilt or innocence and constraining the degree to which Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be brought up.

On the Monday of the second week of the trial, video used by the F.B.I. while they were investigating the Boston Marathon bombing was presented. Miriam Conrad, lawyer for the defense, pointed out that in the videos presented, Mr. Tsarnaev is consistently seen behind his brother, with Tamerlan Tsnarnaev in the lead.

Tuesday brought the introduction of the note written by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev while hiding from the police just before his capture on April 19, 2013. While laying inside a dry-docked boat in Watertown, Mr. Tsarnaev used a pencil to scratch his justification for his part in the bombings, citing the deaths of Muslims killed by the United States’ military actions and his desire to attain paradise, which he believed his brother, killed hours earlier, had reached.

Riddled with bullet holes and smeared with blood, the note reads, “Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [bullet hole obstructs text] it is allowed. All credit goes to [bullet hole].”

On Wednesday, the prosecution called Nathan Harman to the witness stand. Mr. Harman was a first-year mathematics graduate student at MIT. On April 18, 2013, when he left his office at a little past 10 p.m., Mr. Harman saw an MIT police cruiser outside of the school’s Koch Institute building.

Around this time, Officer Sean Collier was shot to death in his head and neck. In court, Mr. Harman identified the man he saw (described as average-height, skinny, white with a big nose and college-aged) as Mr. Tsarnaev, saying, “He’s right there. He has a blue shirt on.”

A long-distance surveillance video captured the death on film and was played for the jury. In it, two grainy figures walk along a pathway in front of the Koch building and approach the driver’s side of the police car. The low resolution makes it impossible to determine who the figures are or which of them fired the shots.

Image via BU Interactive News/Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a survey of BC students, most (80%) indicated that they believed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, with 4% saying they did not believe he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt and 16% being unsure.

Respondents were divided when asked if they believed the trial should have been moved out of Boston: 46% said yes, 39% said no and 15% indicated that they were unsure.

Though 27% expressed that they supported the death penalty, only 14% thought that Tsarnaev should be punished with it if convicted. Seventy-three percent thought he should receive life in prison without parole and 13% were unsure.

When asked what level of anger or resentment they felt towards Tsarnaev on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being “no resentment or anger” and five being “significant resentment or anger,” BC students averaged 3.73 out of five, indicating moderate to significant feelings or anger or resentment.

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