Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev breaks silence to apologize

On the day he was sentenced to death, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spoke publicly for the first time in more than two years to apologize to the victims and families of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters
A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (r.) speaking during his sentencing hearing in Boston, Massachusetts June 24. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Wednesday apologized for the deadly 2013 attack at a hearing, and US District Judge George O'Toole (l.) formally sentenced him to death for killing four people and injuring 264 in the bombing and its aftermath.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spoke for the first time in court today, on the last day of a months-long death penalty trial and after dozens of his victims and their families addressed the court. His message was one of contrition.

“Immediately after the bombing — which I am guilty of, if there’s any lingering doubt about that let there be no more — I’ve learned of some of the victims, their names, their faces, their age. And throughout this trial more of those victims were given names, more of those victims had faces,” Mr. Tsarnaev said.

“I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for the damage that I’ve done, irreparable damage,” he said. 

Mr. Tsarnaev was convicted last month of helping carry out twin bombings of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, with his brother, Tamerlan — an attack that resulted in three deaths and more than 260 injuries. He was also convicted of the murder of a security guard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the days after the bombings. A jury convicted Tsarnaev in April and, after a second sentencing phase in the trial, sentenced him to death in May. 

"I have to say I was completely floored by the fact he made a statement today," says Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer. "It seemed to me perfectly sincere, and sincere in light of the fact that he made the statement at a point where it didn’t really influence the outcome."

The hearing today served as Tsarnaev's official sentencing, where the sentence for each of the 30 counts against him could be determined, and gave victims the opportunity to make final statements to the court.

In the end, 24 people spoke, either for themselves or on the behalf of other victims. The testimony was just as emotional and bracing as it has been since the first days of the trial, but unlike every other day in court, today Tsarnaev chose to speak.

After a brief introduction from his attorney, Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev — wearing a dark blazer and a scraggly beard — stood and addressed the room. The voice that had not been heard publicly in the more than two years since the bombings occurred was deep and composed, with a strong American accent.

Addressing the victims, he said, “I pray for your relief, for your healing, for your well-being, for your strength, and I ask Allah to have mercy on me, my brother, and my family.”

Tsarnaev began his speech by noting that it is Ramadan, a holy month in the Muslim calendar.

“It is the month of mercy from Allah to his creation,” he said. “It is a month to ask forgiveness of Allah … a month to express gratitude to Allah and his creation … a month where hearts change. Indeed, a month of many blessings.”

Tsarnaev did mumble occasionally, his voice rusty and inaudible, as if he hadn't used it in a while.

He also thanked his attorneys, who he said “made the last two years very easy” for his family, and those who testified on his behalf — most of them testifying in the sentencing phase of the trial as his lawyers fought to spare him the death penalty.

“Praise be to Allah,” he finished. “Thank you.”

Tsarnaev may have been speaking as much to the historical record as to the courtroom, Mr. Silverglate says.

"He had to know that he couldn’t influence the sentence, but he might have had very personal reasons – not tactical and not strategic, not connected to any effort to change the sentence, because he couldn’t – but he may have testified for himself and for the claims of history," he says. "I think he was saying for history’s sake the he didn’t possess any animus towards the people whom he hurt, and that he feels very badly about it. That’s a statement to the victims, but it’s also a statement for history."

Following his comments, Judge George O’Toole addressed the room. He thanked the jury — 13 of the 18 deliberators and alternates attended the hearing and sat in the jury box — and said that while their verdict was not the only possible verdict, “it was certainly a rational one based on the evidence.”

“For those of us who sat through [the trial] beginning to end, we have heard things we will never forget, both good and bad,” he said.

O'Toole praised, in particular, the first responders who rushed to the site of the bombing, as well as the victims who testified during the trial.

"It takes a good deal of courage to stand up in this setting and make such intensely personal statements," he said. "Their courage throughout their extended ordeal was exemplary."

Addressing Tsarnaev directly, he cited Marc Antony's speech from William Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar."

“The evil that men do lives after them,” he said. “So it will be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.”

“Whenever your name is mentioned, what will be remembered is the evil you have done. No one will remember that your teachers were fond of you, no one will mention that your friends found you funny and fun to be with, no one will say you were talented athlete,” he added, referencing some of the arguments his lawyers had made in their attempts to spare him the death penalty.

“What will be remembered,” Judge O’Toole said, “is that you murdered and maimed innocent people, and that you did it willfully and intentionally.”

O’Toole then read the sentences for all 30 of the counts against Tsarnaev. In the end, he received nine sentences of life imprisonment and 1 sentences of life in prison without the possibility of release. Those charges are largely moot, however: He also received six sentences of death by lethal injection.

"He chose hate, he chose destruction, he chose death This is all on him. We choose love, we choose kindness, we choose peace. This is our response to hate," said Bill Richard, the father of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard, speaking with his wife, Denise, beside him. In April, the Richards had urged the government to drop the death penalty for Tsarnaev in an open letter on the front-page of the Boston Globe. "We had preferred he had a lifetime to reconcile with himself what he did that day, but he will have less than that."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.