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At core of Boston Marathon bombing trial, brothers' complex relationship (+video)

The Boston Marathon bombing trial begins with opening statements Wednesday, and the dynamic between the two Tsarnaev siblings could be a focal point.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an amateur boxer, a convert to radical Islam, and someone potentially involved in a triple murder. He was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011 and later spent six months in the southwest Russian regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, where authorities have said they suspect he tried to join Islamist insurgents. 

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was his younger brother: quiet, impressionable, and easily persuaded. It wasn’t his idea to bomb the Boston Marathon in 2013. But when Tamerlan approached him for help in carrying out the attack, his love for – and submissiveness to – his older brother prevented him from saying no.

That’s the picture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s legal team has painted of him in the months leading up to his trial, which starts with opening statements on Wednesday. His lawyers have made it clear that they will try to show he was heavily influenced, perhaps even intimidated, by his older brother into participating in the bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260.

Legal analysts say that the “blood is thicker than water” argument is a crucial component of Mr. Tsarnaev’s defense. It’s likely to become even more important if he is convicted, leaving the jury to decide whether to sentence him to death.

“Part of the defense strategy is to humanize him,” says Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “If his lawyers can succeed in humanizing him, then maybe they can succeed in getting the jury to spare his life.”

Defense attorney David Bruck said in court Monday that without Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died days after the attack following a gun battle with police, “the Boston Marathon bombing would have never occurred.’’

By portraying Tamerlan as the mastermind and Dzhokhar as his follower, the defense team is trying to counter the motive ascribed by federal prosecutors: that Dzhokhar held radical, anti-American beliefs of his own.

"The government says the motive is extremist, jihadist ideology," Mr. Bruck said, according to media reports. "That opens the door for us to respond that a large part of the motive may have been the defendant’s love for, admiration of, submissiveness to his older brother.” 

Martin Weinberg, a prominent Boston defense lawyer not involved in the case, says that “the coercive relationship of the dominating brother is paramount to the sentencing narrative” – along with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s youth, his lack of a criminal record, and his “essentially apolitical” worldview.

“I think all of those issues will be put to a jury,” Mr. Weinberg adds.

The dynamic between the two siblings is widely expected to be a focal point of the trial, touching on a number of narratives in the brother’s lives – from Tamerlan’s amateur boxing career, radicalization, and possible mental illness to Dzhokhar’s relatively ordinary childhood in Cambridge, Mass. 

Among the most grisly incidents involves a triple murder in Waltham, Mass., in 2011. Prosecutors have said that a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s implicated him in the killings.

But with Tamerlan Tsarnaev deceased, witness testimony could be crucial in reconstructing his character and behavioral traits for the jury, says David Hoose, a defense attorney in Northampton, Mass., who specializes in death penalty cases.

“It would not surprise me if the government has some witnesses who said, ‘I knew both of them, and Dzhokhar didn’t listen to anything [Tamerlan] said,’ ” Mr. Hoose says. 

“You will probably see other [witnesses] who said he was terrified of his brother,” Hoose adds. “I’m not going to be surprised to see people on both sides of that.”

Should the jury find Tsarnaev guilty, the trial will move to a separate sentencing phase, where analysts expect his relationship with his brother to be explored most in depth. To sentence him to death, the same jury would have to agree on that unanimously. Any opposition would result in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

For that reason, most legal experts observing the trial expect the sibling dynamic to be brought to the fore on Wednesday. Opening statements are a prime opportunity for both legal teams to present the main themes and arguments of their case. Both sides probably won’t waste any time in trying to establish their preferred portrayal of Tamerlan and his relationship with Dzhokhar.

According to Hoose, it’s common for defense teams to “front-load” their case for mitigation.

“It may be more setting the stage for the penalty phase,” Hoose says, “introducing evidence through cross-examining government witnesses which might tend to support their theory that [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] played a lesser role in this than his older brother.”

Weinberg describes the opening statements as “the crossroads to the case.” The crossroads could lead in several directions, including one in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an active participant in the bombings, and another where he is a more passive accomplice.

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