How Tsarnaev's overlooked Twitter account might hurt him

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's posts on a second, rarely used Twitter account might damage his defense team's claims that he was bullied into participating in the Boston Marathon bombing by his brother.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP
In this courtroom sketch, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, right, and defense attorney Judy Clarke are depicted watching evidence displayed on a monitor during his federal death penalty trial Monday, in Boston. Tsarnaev is charged with conspiring with his brother to place two bombs near the marathon finish line in April 2013, killing three and injuring 260 spectators.

The trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took a confrontational and, at times, surreal turn Tuesday morning as defense lawyers launched a rare and piercing cross-examination regarding two Twitter accounts linked to their client.

The two accounts on the social media site appear to portray Mr. Tsarnaev in noticeably different states of mind. As both legal teams work to convince the jury just how involved he was in the planning and execution of the April 2013 bombings, the two accounts could provide pivotal insights into his frame of mind prior to the attacks.

Tsarnaev's primary account, @J-tsar, has been written about widely since the bombings, but the second account – not widely known to the public until now – may be more important to the trial. While Tsarnaev appears to have barely used the second account, @Al_firdausiA – sending only seven tweets over the course of three days – it is noticeably more preoccupied with Islam than his personal account.

All seven tweets – posted about a month prior to the April 15, 2013, bombings – reference Islam. The account is following nine others on Twitter, many also related to Islam.

The defense team's interest in the two Twitter accounts illustrates its continuing efforts to try to manage how the prosecution draws connections between their client and radical Islam.

On Monday, prosecution witness Steven Kimball, a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent, testified that the tweets point to Tsarnaev’s mind-set in the weeks leading up to the bombing. On Tuesday, Tsarnaev's defense team made efforts to characterize Tsarnaev's second Twitter account as casual and non-threatening over the course of a rigorous, hour-long cross-examination on Tuesday morning, that at times took detours into the bizarre.

Lead defense attorney Miriam Conrad pressed Mr. Kimball on a number of tweets he didn't discuss the previous afternoon. She pointed out that Tsarnaev often tweeted American and Russian rap lyrics, including one tweet about wanting to die young.

She also tried to show that many of the tweets were light-hearted or sarcastic. At one point, Conrad asked Kimball if he knew the meaning of the term "LOL," and pointed out that Kimball had mischaracterized a picture on the second account as the Muslim holy city of Mecca, when it is actually a picture of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

"Is it fair to say that in addition to the 45 tweets that the government chose for you to introduce, there are a lot of tweets about things like girls, cars, food, sleep, homework, complaining about studying," she asked, according to Metro.

"Yes," Kimball responded.

Conrad added that one of Tsarnaev's more controversial tweets, referencing a "party" on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was actually a quote from a Comedy Central show. Another tweet, posted the day of the 2012 Boston Marathon and allegedly quoting Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, is actually a quote from the Quran, she said.

Ultimately, however, the second Twitter account could still be damaging to Tsarnaev's defense, which is trying to portray Tsarnaev as an impressionable teenager bullied by his brother into participating in the bombings.

"It’s surprising that there is this second account, and I think it makes it easier for the government to show what they need to show, that is [Tsarnaev] himself was politically engaged and independent of his brother," says Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

"The fact that [the second account] is separated from his ordinary day-to-day tweets, and that his college friends didn’t know he had this other account suggests quite literally a double life," she adds.

The second Twitter account can help the prosecution establish Tsarnaev's personal motive and state of mind before the bombings, says Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Boston's Northeastern University.

"At least so far we haven’t heard much evidence about his thoughts before the incident so it’s important to establish motive and state of mind," says Professor Medwed. "These tweets help suggest that he had a sort of independent culpable state of mind and wasn’t just influenced by his brother’s view."

Testimony from later in the day Tuesday could also be damaging to Tsarnaev's defense, experts said.

Tsarnaev left a handwritten note in the boat in which he was captured in Watertown, Mass., on April 19 after a nearly 24-hour manhunt. He wrote that the United States government "is killing our innocent civilians," and "As a Muslim I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished," said Todd Brown, a Boston Police Department bomb technician who helped sweep the boat. Another message in the boat said "jealous of my brother," referencing his older brother, Tamerlan, who had been killed when Dzhokhar ran him over during a confrontation with police the night before.

But Tuesday did provide the defense with rare opportunities to cross-examine witnesses. So far, the defense has not cross-examined victims of the bombing because there would be "nothing to gain and a lot to lose," Medwed says. But as the prosecution calls law enforcement and expert witnesses, who will evoke less emotion, the defense can be more aggressive without putting off the jury.

"I think what’s great about this defense strategy is they're being very selective about who they’re cross-examining and what they're cross-examining about, and that says to the jury, 'Look, this is important. We’re not doing this very often so this is important,' " Medwed adds.

The defense's cross-examinations of officials are calculated to have a cumulative effect, says Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

"If they can have one small chink in the armor from each of them and build them up over many, many witnesses who are about to testify, I think their strategy is to at least create sufficient concern [among the jury] over the involvement of defendant to not impose death penalty."

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