Defense rests in Boston Marathon Bombing trial. Were they successful?

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is found guilty, as expected, defense lawyers are expected to try to spare him the death penalty by shifting much of the blame for the bombings to his older brother, Tamerlan.

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, 2015, courtroom sketch. The defense rested its case on Tuesday.

The defense rested its case in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev today after calling only four witnesses over the course of two days.

The brief defense was not surprising considering Mr. Tsarnaev’s lawyers already admitted their client’s guilt in opening statements. But the abrupt conclusion, after examining only a few witnesses, brought to a sudden end the first phase of the trial that had featured 92 witnesses for the prosecution over 14 days.

The 18-person jury will now confer and determine if Tsarnaev is guilty or innocent of the 30 charges he faces. If he is found guilty, the trial will move to a second phase, where the same jury will hear arguments over whether he should receive the death sentence or life in prison.

After finishing the examination of their final witness – FBI fingerprint analyst Elaina Graff – defense attorney Tim Watkins announced that they would be calling no more witnesses. Judge George O’Toole called for a short recess and the jury filed out the room. Tsarnaev huddled with his lawyers for a few moments while the room emptied, his lead attorney Judy Clarke patting him on the back, and was then escorted from the room.

After several hours of breaks and formal sidebars, the jury finally returned to receive their instructions. The court will be in recess until next Monday, when the jury will hear closing statements from both sides and final instructions from Judge O’Toole, then begin their deliberations. 

“It is imperative you speak nothing of this case to anyone, including yourself in the mirror,” O’Toole told the jury this afternoon. "People want to know things. You can't tell them."

Testimony in the Tsarnaev trial has fluctuated from raw and emotional to cold and analytical. The prosecution rested its case yesterday morning after bringing several jurors to tears with wrenching medical testimony on the injuries to the three victims of the bombings, including an eight-year-old boy. More than 260 people were also injured during the April 2013 attack.

The defense witnesses were, by contrast, much more technical. The four witnesses included two digital forensics experts and two FBI investigators previously examined by the prosecution. Defense questioning focused on two of the greater unknowns in the case: the extremist content found on several computers belonging to the Tsarnaev family and the issue of who constructed the pressure-cooker bombs and where.

The jury is expected to find Tsarnaev guilty, at which point his defense team will be able to focus in greater detail on their main goal: sparing him the death penalty by shifting the bulk of the blame for the bombings onto his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police three days after the April 15, 2013, bombing. 

The defense tried at various moments during the trial to lay a foundation for sentencing phase arguments, but O’Toole ruled early in the trial that he would limit references to Tamerlan until the sentencing phase.

That limitation of evidence is one of the likely reasons the defense called so few witnesses in the first phase, says Christopher Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston. The defense may have liked to call witnesses relating to arguments for the sentencing phase – those who could testify to the Tsarnaev brothers' relationship, or experts who could discuss Chechen culture or Islam – but those avenues of questioning were limited, he adds. 

“Had they been allowed to go little further with that [line of questioning] there would have been more witnesses,” says Mr. Dearborn.

But given the limitations put on that kind of testimony in the first phase of the trial, Dearborn says the first phase was actually able to end quicker than many expected.

“I’m sure they wanted to call all their witnesses twice,” says Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University and former state assistant attorney general. “But the judge is not going to allow them to do that.”

“This isn’t the time to put on friends or teachers or coaches to say [Tsarnaev’s] a good kid, because that’s not related to guilt,” she adds. “I think they’ll make that point more vividly in the second phase, but if they were able to plant that seed – ‘Yes, there were two of them, but one mastermind’ – then I think the defense has been pretty successful in that.”

The defense also helped itself in this regard by selectively cross-examining – mostly declining to question victims, Dearborn adds. 

“I think they made some very sound tactical decisions,” says Dearborn. “It’s all about not wasting people’s time and trying to gain some credibility and trying to focus the jury on what really matters to [the defense], which is convincing at least someone on jury to vote not to take this kid’s life.”

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