Everyone Is Analyzing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Body Movements

But an expert says it may be too soon to tell what his fidgety actions really mean.
Image via Associated Press

Image via Associated Press

His “bowed-head posture,” clasped hands, and refusal to look jurors directly in the eyes are obvious body gestures that anyone facing the death penalty and a looming months-long trial could inadvertently fall victim to in a crowded courtroom. But Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s movements and gestures could also be a telling sign about the suspect’s emotions.

“If someone is showing facial movements out of the social ordinary then they are intimidated. And this guy is intimidated,” said Boston College associate professor Joseph Tecce, an expert in detecting body languages as indicators of emotions and stress. “But is there anything miraculous about that? No. Not at this point.”

Tsarnaev has spent the last two days sitting before hundreds of potential jurors who could be picked to determine his fate during his upcoming trial at the federal courthouse in South Boston, and his hand gestures, body movements, and facial expressions have been scrutinized and described in precise detail—almost to an extreme—by reporters on the scene.

“Tsarnaev sitting there, fidgeting less than yesterday. Looks either down or glances to left at judge,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Milton Valencia on Twitter. “Tsarnaev doesn’t look at jurors. He does paw at his beard a lot.”

WBZ’s Jim Armstrong also noted the suspect’s wriggling and restlessness.

“As judge enters, an uncomfortable Tsarnaev again puts hands in and out of pockets; awkward,” he tweeted.

And later: “Tsarnaev sits at defense table, eyes cast down, picking at his fingers.”

Some reporters also noted that at times Tsarnaev appeared attentive, looking toward jurors. In other moments, he looked solely at the judge presiding the case, they said.

After reviewing a sample of tweets and observations forwarded to him by Boston, Tecce, who usually dissects a suspect’s or politician’s body language after examining video footage, said while Tsarnaev’s actions aren’t necessarily out-of-the-ordinary, they are somewhat revealing, especially when it comes to reports of the aversion of his eyes.

“What comes to mind for this guy is gaze-aversion. It sounds like he looks and doesn’t look a lot,” he said. “When this guy looks ahead and then looks to the side—he doesn’t look at the jurors, he paws at his beard a lot—those two things together is the Obama effect: you’re intimidated and can’t look somebody straight on. And as grandma once said, ‘if someone can’t look you straight in the eye, you can’t trust them.’ But that’s also an old wives’ tale.”

Tecce’s reference to the “Obama effect” comes from his interpretation of the president’s performance during the 2008 debates leading up to his election. He said in one debate with Senator John McCain, Obama looked away, or “averted his gaze,” more than 16 times in one minute.

“He was looking away because he was thinking, “oh, geez, this reporter’s going to nail me,’” said Tecce.

He said similarly, Tsarnaev could be doing this because “he’s under extreme duress,” which is a likely scenario given the fact that he is facing capital punishment for the attacks at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

“Pawing at a beard is tension release and nervousness. Taken together [with gaze-aversion], both say the same thing: he’s intimidated and nervous, and is expecting the axe to fall down over his head,” said Tecce. “If he looked, and then he didn’t look at the jurors at all, that fits gaze-aversion. Having your hands folded is another way of reducing tension. We do that when we want to hug ourselves and reassure ourselves.”

Because cameras aren’t allowed inside the federal courtroom, it’s difficult to get a precise reading of Tsarnaev’s actions. But Tecce said if anybody noticed rapid blinking from the suspect, that, too, could be an indicator that Tsarnaev is feeling the pressure.

“Eye-blinking demonstrates negative feelings. Whenever someone blinks fast, they are feeling physical and psychological pain,” he said. “Blinking a lot represents negative hedonia.”

Tecce said once the suspect has a chance to speak—if he does at all during the trial—it will be easier to figure out what his motives are.

“If we can get him speaking, and looking at his speech and body language together, then I could tell you the cadence of his speech, what he’s saying, and whether it’s time locked to looking away, and ‘blink storms’—three rapid blinks in a row,” he said. “Blink storms usually mean total loss of control and nervousness. Muscle tension is the single most important pathway in our body for releasing psychological tension. So muscle tension produces rapid blinks, and that means you’re experiencing tension.”


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com