Prosecution rests in Boston Marathon bombing trial. What's ahead for defense?

The prosecution called its last witness Monday in the Boston Marathon bombing trial, with defense lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev expected to wrap up within days. But sentencing could last until June.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP/File
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (c.) is depicted between defense attorneys Miriam Conrad (l.) and Judy Clarke (r.) during his federal death penalty trial in Boston in this March 5 courtroom sketch.

The prosecution finished its case against accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the same way it began nearly two months ago – painting a picture of the devastation and heartache caused by the bombings.

After having spent the past weeks meticulously exploring police investigations into the attacks, the prosecution circled back Monday with graphic witness testimony about the day of the attacks. The prosecution opened the trial with a similar collection of witnesses whose testimony the defense had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to limit.

In the courtroom, several jurors were stifling tears during the testimony of Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner Henry Nields, who spoke about the autopsy of eight-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest fatality of the two blasts. Mr. Nields was the last of 92 prosecution witnesses.

Now, Mr. Tsarnaev’s defense team can target in earnest its main goal: sparing Tsarnaev from the death penalty. His participation in the bombings has not been challenged. Rather, what the defense wants to do is lay the groundwork for the sentencing phase of the trial by shifting the blame for the attacks onto Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police in the days after the April 15, 2013, bombings.

The defense has begun to call its own witnesses – though not Tsarnaev himself – but it’s unlikely to call nearly as many as the prosecution. The case could go to jury late this week or early next week. If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the sentencing phase could last until June.

At times, Tsarnaev’s lawyers have been able to offer a glimpse at what lies ahead.

Jurors have already seen Tsarnaev’s college résumé, for example, where he described himself as: “Responsible, hard worker, great swimmer, social, nice, can enforce rules, very enthusiastic, reliable, people person, certified life guard, first aid, CPR.” 

They also saw his plea to administrators at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth three months before the bombings, asking to regain financial aid after a semester of poor grades left him with a 1.09 grade point average at the time of the bombings.

“This year I lost too many of my loved relatives. I was unable to cope with the stress and maintain school work,” he wrote three months before the bombings, referring to his parents moving out of the Cambridge, Mass., apartment that he shared with his brother and returning to Russia. “I am at the point where I am finally able to focus on my school work. I wish to do well so one day I can help those in need in my country, especially my family members.

His request for a renewed scholarship was denied. But the letter gave a sense of Tsarnaev’s mental state prior to the bombings – something the defense will want to expand upon.

The prosecution, meanwhile, will argue that Tsarnaev acted of his own free will and committed his crimes despite having numerous opportunities to change his mind.

Tsarnaev faces 30 charges in connection with the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which resulted in three deaths and more than 260 injuries. Tsarnaev also faces charges in connection with the shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, as well as a carjacking and a shootout with law enforcement in Watertown, Mass. Seventeen of the 30 charges could bring the death penalty.

If Tsarnaev is convicted on at least one of death penalty charges, the same jury of 18 will hear arguments over whether Tsarnaev should be executed or spend his life in prison without parole. The 12 sitting jurors would have to agree unanimously to sentence Tsarnaev to death.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers could call a number of expert and character witnesses to testify on Tsarnaev’s behalf, exploring his history, childhood, and family relationships that have been left largely unexplored during the first phase of the trial.

The sentencing phase would also likely bring new characters to the fore. Miriam Conrad, the defense team’s death penalty specialist, has defended several high profile defendants who face the death penalty, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski; Susan Smith, who drowned her children; and Tucson shooter Jared Loughner. Each of them received life sentences instead of death.

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