Tsarnaev defense expected to rest; jury may get case this week
BOSTON (CNN) — The death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on track to go to the jury by the end of the week or early next week.
The defense, which has called more than 40 witnesses in its bid to persuade jurors to spare Tsarnaev’s life, is expected to rest later Monday. Prosecutors are expected to call a witness or two in rebuttal before both sides deliver their closing arguments.
Transcripts of hearings to which the jury wasn’t privy indicate the defense plans to call as its final witness Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun made famous by the 1995 movie based on her book “Dead Man Walking.”
Prosecutors are fighting to keep her off the witness stand or limit her testimony. Attorneys have not disclosed what she might say or whether she has met with Tsarnaev.
The trial has been lengthy. Jury selection began in January and testimony in March. Tsarnaev was found guilty April 8 of all 30 counts against him.
Seventeen of those counts — involving the deaths of marathon spectators Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Martin Richard and MIT police officer Sean Collier — carry a sentence of either life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection.
The defense has sought to humanize Tsarnaev, 21, in the eyes of the jury. Witnesses have told the story of a Muslim boy raised in a volatile Russian immigrant family who struggled to adjust to life in the United States as his father slipped into mental illness.
His teachers and high school and college friends say they never suspected the “laid-back,” “kind,” and “caring” Tsarnaev they knew was steeping himself in jihad and plotting mayhem.
But by the time Tsarnaev graduated from high school, his mother and older brother Tamerlan, both known as flashy dressers, began wearing conservative Muslim attire. An imam testified that Tamerlan once interrupted prayer services at a mosque, calling the imam a “hypocrite” because he compared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Prophet Mohammed.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev also was spending hours on his computer, downloading and sharing radical jihadist material with his wife and brother, according to testimony.
The defense painted Tamerlan Tsarnaev as the mastermind of the bombing and said he bullied his little brother, a college sophomore, to help plant the homemade pressure cooker bombs in the crowd near the marathon finish line. (Tamerlan died days after the bombing following a gunbattle with police and being hit by a car driven by Dzhokhar.)
The defense case included testimony about Chechen history, the Tsarnaev family’s own history and the battle between passion and reason that takes place in the adolescent brain. It also included testimony from teachers, coaches and friends. An array of photos showed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a child in class or on school field trips. He was shown, as a teen, holding a teacher’s baby and interacting with a friend’s dog at a backyard barbecue.
As yet unexplained is how the boy and teen liked by all evolved into what prosecutors portray as a terrorist so heartless that he planted his bomb behind a row of children, and stood waiting for four minutes before slipping away into the crowd as it exploded.
It has been nearly impossible to gauge his reaction in court. Most of the time, he looks like a bored student in class, but he was seen wiping away tears as one of his Russian aunts sobbed uncontrollably on the witness stand.
It seems unlikely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will speak at this stage in the trial. So, as their deliberations begin, jurors will be left to wonder how he became the person who wrote these words while hiding in a boat after the police gunbattle:
“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians … I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all … Now I don’t like killing innocent people, it is forbidden in Islam. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”
The jurors will also be left to wonder whether he still believes them.