Defense Argues for Isolation, Not Death, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Today, almost two months into Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial, his lawyers began the core of their defense—the week when they try to save his life.

David Bruck, in his opening argument in the trial’s penalty phase, told an epic tale of the Tsarnaev family’s rootless wanderings across Central Asia and his parents’ mental illnesses and failures. He argued that Tsarnaev’s older brother masterminded the bombings and drew him into the plot. He promised expert testimony about the impulsive weakness of the teenage mind.

Bruck also argued against the death penalty’s eye-for-an-eye retribution. “There is no evening the scales,” he said. “There’s no point in trying to hurt him as he hurt, because it can’t be done.”

He showed the jury a photograph of the federal supermax prison in Colorado, where Tsarnaev will spend the rest of his life if even one juror votes to spare him from execution. The aerial photo showed black prison walls in the shape of a giant baseball home plate, surrounded by a stark landscape of snow.

Instead of death, isolation.

“[It’s] where the government keeps other terrorists that used to be famous but aren’t anymore,” Bruck said. “It’s so secure, he won’t be able to glimpse the outside world. All you can see from a narrow window or small one-man exercise cages is a patch of sky.” Communications are carefully limited, he noted, preventing inmates from publishing or from giving interviews.

“He goes away and is forgotten,” Bruck promised. “His legal case will be over for good, and no martyrdom, just years and years of punishment.”

The defense began a case that sounded like a prosecutor’s case against Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Bruck argued that the older, deceased marathon bomber had a stronger motivation to commit the bombing than Dzhokhar, a more aggressive and persuasive personality, and great influence over his younger brother.

“If Tamerlan hadn’t been in the picture, would Dzhokhar have done this on his own?” Bruck asked. “Or anything remotely like it?”

Jurors heard testimony about Tamerlan’s radical outbursts at his mosque and a local halal market.

At one Friday service at the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, lecturer Loay Assaf encouraged the congregation to take part in American society, to embrace July 4th and Thanksgiving—much as the prophet Muhammad had participated in a Jewish ceremony honoring Moses.

“He was shouting at me, was so angry, ‘This is not Islamic, this is wrong, you should not say that,’” Assaf testified.

Two months later, near Martin Luther King Day in 2013, Assaf encouraged the congregation to stand up for their rights as King had. He noted that many great people, including Muhammad, had overcome opposition with persistence. Tamerlan Tsarnaev interrupted again.

“He was fired up, very hot,” said Assaf. “I could see his face was tomato red. [He said,] ‘This is wrong. I remember you from last time.’ Even his stance was a fighting stance.” He imitated Tamerlan pointing aggressively toward him.

A computer forensics expert testified about terrorist-propaganda articles and videos that Tamerlan emailed his brother. Two articles praised Osama bin Laden. “Thanks, that’s interesting,” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote back. Unbelievably, especially for a guy who’d attracted FBI attention, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube channel included a playlist he’d titled, “Terrorists.”

As the defense built a case that Tamerlan had a dominating personality, the prosecution tried to punch holes in it. Judith Russell, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mother-in-law, testified about her growing concern as her daughter, Katherine, forgave Tamerlan’s cheating, converted to Islam, began covering her head with a hijab, became pregnant with Tamerlan’s child, and married him with no family in attendance. Judith tried to talk her out of the relationship, but gave up. Now, Russell says, “She’s getting her life together, is lighter in spirit, more like the Katie we knew.”

“Some people have a very charismatic, magnetic personality,” prosecutor William Weinreb said in cross-examination.

“True,” Russell replied.

“That’s not true of Tamerlan.”

Russell contradicted him. “No, He had a certain charm.”

“But you weren’t pulled in?”


The defense called eight witnesses today, but no testimony packed the emotional charge of Bruck’s opening. At day’s end came Robert Ponte, a jazz teacher from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, who taught Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a jazz ensemble. The testimony didn’t shed much light on Tamerlan, a point prosecutor Nadine Pellegrini brought home with a brutally succinct cross-examination.

“So, [you taught a] class Mr. Tsarnaev took nine years before the bombing,” said Pellegrini. “He wanted to be in jazz ensemble, but couldn’t play the piano very well?”

Correct, Ponte said.

“No further questions,” Pellegrini said.