Judy Clarke, the lead defense attorney for suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, didn’t mince words during her opening statement in his trial on Wednesday.
“It was him,” she told the jury in a packed federal courtroom in Boston, bringing a swift end to any lingering suspicion that Mr. Tsarnaev would attempt to maintain his innocence throughout the guilt phase of his trial.
“We do not and will not at any point in this case sidestep or attempt to sidestep Dzhokhar’s responsibility for his actions,” Ms. Clarke said, adding that the acts he committed were “inexcusable."
But despite her admission, Clarke was quick to point out that Tsarnaev did not act alone. He carried out the bombing in “partnership” with his older brother, as lead prosecutor William Weinreb argued – or, as Clarke framed it, under his older brother’s “special kind of influence.” It’s an important distinction that could determine whether Tsarnaev lives or dies.
Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston and former state assistant attorney general, says that for Tsarnaev’s lawyers to dissuade the jury from seeking the death penalty, “it’s all about trying to create a relationship with them."
“That’s all they have,” says Professor Cavallaro, adding that she, “can’t remember a case in my lifetime where the evidence has been so overwhelming.”
Because a verdict of not guilty is highly unlikely, Cavallaro warns that challenging the prosecution's evidence could backfire by “poisoning the jury’s potential sympathy” for him. Instead, the defense team has portrayed him as following a “path laid by his brother,” as Clarke said Wednesday.
“It was Tamerlan Tsarnaev who self-radicalized,” Clarke said. “It was Dzhokhar who followed him.”
She argued that Tamerlan’s age, his “sheer force of personality,” and their shared culture pushed his younger brother into helping him.
For the prosecution’s part, Mr. Weinreb argued in his opening statement that Tsarnaev was an Islamic extremist and a ruthless killer of his own making.
He “believed he was a soldier in a holy war against Americans,” Weinreb said, as he detailed the events that occurred the week of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured in the attack near the finish line.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died days after the bombing when his younger brother inadvertently ran him over during a shootout with police. Since he is unable to stand trial, it will be up to the defense team and prosecution to reconstruct the relationship between the two brothers.
However, Tsarnaev’s lawyers may have a harder time of doing so in the first phase of the trial than they initially hoped. Prior to opening statements on Wednesday, Judge George O’Toole ruled that in the guilt phase he would limit discussions on whether Tsarnaev was “more or less culpable” than his older brother. The judge said such arguments were generally not relevant before sentencing.
As Clarke wrapped up her opening statement, she pleaded with jurors to keep an open mind as they consider the evidence and, more importantly, later determine Tsarnaev’s fate.
“It’s going to be a lot to keep your hearts and minds open, but that’s what we ask,” she said.
Monitor staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report.