In a mild Russian accent, he said “not guilty” at least six times. With those words, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev punctuated his first appearance in a federal courthouse since being accused of carrying out a deadly twin bombing with his brother at the Boston Marathon on April 15.
Dressed in prison orange, with a black shirt showing underneath, Mr. Tsarnaev was told that the 30 criminal counts he’s accused of carry maximum sentences ranging from life in prison to the death penalty.
Prosecutors didn’t formally say in the hearing Wednesday whether they will seek the death penalty, but they said that the trial, with some 80 to 100 witnesses, could take three or four months.
US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler set Sept. 23 as the next court date in the case.
Family members of both Tsarnaev and of the bombing victims watched in the courtroom, as did some onlookers who came to show support and sympathy for the Muslim youth.
Tsarnaev was clean shaven and topped by the mop of curly dark hair that’s familiar from prior photos. He became a US citizen after emigrating from Russia’s Chechen Republic as a boy.
His overall demeanor was calm, but at times during the brief hearing he fidgeted or seemed defiant in his body language.
He appeared to sneer as the judge prepared to formally review the possible punishments, and at times had the demeanor of a bored high school student.
A few times he stroked his chin.
Defense attorney Judy Clarke sought to enter the plea for him, but Judge Bowler asked that the defendant respond directly as the 30 criminal counts were summarized. The series of “not guilty” responses followed, with Tsarnaev speaking into a microphone.
In the Marathon terrorist attacks, three people died and scores were injured by two bombs planted near the finish line.
Days later, as authorities sought to track down the perpetrators, 19-year-old Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, allegedly killed a police officer with a handgun, hijacked a car, and engaged in a fire fight as they were surrounded by police.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in the standoff, while the younger brother was captured later hiding in a boat parked in a suburban backyard.
In court Wednesday, Tsarnaev showed little signs of the injuries he sustained as law enforcement officials sought to apprehend him. The plastic frame of a cast was visible covering his left forearm.
Critics of the US government case against Tsarnaev voiced their protests outside the courthouse, with one woman holding up an “exonerate Jahir” sign – an alternative spelling of Dzhokhar’s name.
Some members of the public who came to the hearing, by contrast, criticized Tsarnaev for his lack of apparent remorse and his plea of not guilty.
Many legal experts say the evidence against Tsarnaev is strong enough that the big question may be the severity of the sentence, rather than whether he gets a guilty verdict.
The Marathon bombings drew nationwide attention in April, as a reminder of America’s vulnerability to terrorist attack – including from self-radicalized jihadis, as the Tsarnaev brothers may have been.
Boston’s federal courthouse was guarded Wednesday by extra police – not just on foot but in boats in the nearby harbor.