Trial of friend of Boston bombing suspect: a deterrent?

Azamat Tazhayakov is now on trial for allegedly conspiring to dispose of a backpack belonging to the Boston Marathon bombing suspect and for obstructing justice. His trial isn't the main act, but it has its own significance, analysts say.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP
Defendant Azamat Tazhayakov (l.), a college friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is depicted listening to testimony from FBI Special Agent Phil Christiana (r.) during the first day of his federal obstruction of justice trial Monday in Boston. Mr. Tazhayakov is accused of removing items from Tsarnaev's dorm room, but is not charged with taking part in the bombing or knowing about it in advance.

The first trial pertaining to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings got under way Monday and Tuesday, as a friend of the surviving suspect faces allegations that he obstructed justice and conspired to dispose of evidence related to the murderous explosions – federal charges that could put him away for 25 years.

Azamat Tazhayakov is one of two acquaintances of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who connected Mr. Tsarnaev to the bombings and sought to dispose of a laptop computer and a backpack filled with fireworks canisters that the pair found in the suspect's dorm room, prosecutors charge. The bombings killed three people and injured 264 others.

Mr. Tazhayakov’s trial may seem like a mere prelude to the November trial of Tsarnaev, who faces 30 federal charges relating to the bombings including using a weapon of mass destruction. But it in fact carries much significance, analysts say.

The prosecution of those accused of aiding and abetting is “incredibly important in stemming attacks such as this,” says former federal prosecutor Daniel Collins, who has experience prosecuting national security cases. “One of the ways to defeat and prevent attacks is to go after those who would provide assistance to the actors, the bomb throwers themselves. It’s a very important part of the strategy in combating terrorism.”

During Monday’s opening statements, the prosecution painted Tazhayakov and his friend Dias Kadyrbayev as wealthy foreign students (both from the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan) who loved to party and whose first response to the bombings was not to help law enforcement identify the suspects but rather to help their friend avoid suspicion, The Boston Globe’s Patricia Wen reported.

“The government will prove to you that the defendant and his co-conspirator removed the backpack for one reason, and that reason was to protect their friend, who they had just learned was one of the two suspected marathon bombers,” Assistant US Attorney Stephanie Seigmann told the jury Monday, according to the Associated Press.

Defense attorney Nicholas Wooldridge alleges that Mr. Kadyrbayev, who will be tried separately, bears full responsibility for tampering with the evidence.

“Azamat’s actions will show that he never intended to obstruct justice,” Mr. Wooldridge told the jury. “As a matter of fact, he never intended to help the bomber himself.”

Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev allegedly entered Tsarnaev’s University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth dorm room on April 18, three days after the bombing, after receiving a text message from Tsarnaev saying, “If you want, you can go to my room and take what’s there,” followed by a smiley face. The defense maintains that the smiley face was code for marijuana among the friends and that the message was an invitation to take his pot rather than a covert request for the friends to remove any evidence, as prosecutors suggest.

Wooldridge further argued that while in the dorm room, Tazhayakov simply watched television and played video games while Kadyrbayev poked around the apartment and picked up the computer and backpack.

That story is in keeping with Tazhayakov’s initial account of the incident, FBI agent Sara Wood testified Tuesday. However, she said the defendant had changed his story during interrogations, later admitting that he had been part of discussions about how to dispose of the backpack.

Wooldridge challenged Ms. Wood’s testimony during cross-examination, because she was relying on handwritten notes and memory from her April 19, 2013, interrogation of Tazhayakov.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement officials to rely on handwritten notes, Mr. Collins says.

“Agents conduct tens of thousands of interviews a day across the nation, and sometimes the interviews only become significant later,” Collins says. “It’s difficult to say that you are going to videotape every interview that you conduct. A lot of them are in the field – on street corners and in restaurants.”

Likewise, it is common for defense attorneys to challenge testimony derived from handwritten notes, Collins adds. Whether a jury can be swayed by such an argument largely depends on the greater context of the case, he adds.

A third Tsarnaev friend, Robel Phillipo, stands accused of lying to investigators about his own whereabouts. Mr. Pillippo, too, will be tried separately.

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