Lawyers in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case today got their final chances to make the case for and against the death penalty in a trial that began exactly ten weeks ago. While the prosecution highlighted the gruesome and brutal nature of Tsarnaev’s crime and his seeming indifference to the devastation he caused, his attorneys countered with a depiction of an ungrounded kid, beloved by those in his world and coerced into terrorism by a powerful older brother.
Prosecutor Steve Mellin, a member of the Justice Department’s Capital Case Section, wove a narrative of what the bombing’s victims experienced immediately after the attack, contrasting their thoughts with those expressed by Tsarnaev in the note he penned while wounded and hiding inside a boat prior to his capture. “There is a certain clarity that comes to you when you are close to death,” Mellin said, citing witnesses Jeff Bauman and Sydney Corcoran, who had described what they felt after being gravely injured. “He [Tsarnaev] too made peace with death in his moment of clarity. He wrote what he thought would be his lasting testament,” Mellin said. “No remorse, no apology. Those are the words of a terrorist convinced he’s done the right thing,”
Mellin emphasized the fact that Dzhokhar knowingly placed a bomb directly behind a row of small children, including Martin Richard, who was killed, and his two siblings. “Seeing them did not deter him … he had already decided that killing innocents was just. In fact, killing innocents was the whole point. It’s how you terrorize a population,” he explained, showing a photograph of the crime scene. “This is what terrorism looks like. It’s Martin bleeding, dying on the street, his mother, injured in one eye, begging for him to stay alive, saying, ‘please, Martin. Please, Martin.’”
Mellin referred to the fact that Tsarnaev not only killed Officer Sean Collier, but attempted to run over other police officers with his car during a suburban Boston shootout. He painted Tsarnaev as remorseless, leaving the scene of the Marathon to purchase milk at Whole Foods and later that day tweeting Jay Z lyrics. “There is no punishment just for that other than death,” Mellin declared.
“At any point on this long journey to committing terrorism, the defendant could have reflected, reconsidered, and stood down. The fact that he marched resolutely on toward his goal makes him more culpable, and his crimes worse,” he said, before summarily rejecting the notion that Dzhokhar participated in the attack only at the urging of Tamerlan. “They were partners in crimes and brothers in arms … both decided that they wanted to punish America in a way that would win them glory and win them a place in paradise.”
Mellin dismissed concerns that inflicting the death penalty could be a strange gift to Tsarnaev, granting him the martyrdom he aspired to, arguing that during and after the shoot-out Dzhokhar actively fought to live. “He ran and then he hid in the boat. A death sentence is not giving him what he wants, it’s giving him what he deserves,” he said. “You all said that in the right case … you could vote to impose a sentence of death. This is that case.”
The defense’s close was handled by Judy Clarke, the famed death-penalty opponent who served as attorney to Ted Kaczynski, Susan Smith, and the Olympic Park Bomber Eric Rudolph. She reminded the jury of Tsarnaev’s rocky childhood and of the warm nature that his friends and teachers testified to. At times, likening him to a puppy or a little boy, she described him as “the quiet kid who kept his head down and did his homework.”
“If not for Tamerlan, this would not have happened. Jahar never would have done this were it not for Tamerlan. This tragedy would not have happened, none of it,” she declared. “Jahar became convinced by the fallacy of the cause and his brother’s passion.” Clarke pounced upon one of the greatest questions of the case, how a beloved and well-educated American teen could turn to such extreme violence. “How does all this happen? How does this good kid, this youngster, this young man who was described as gentle by friends and family and teachers, how does he do it? How did this happen?” she asked. “If only there were an easy and succinct answer to that question that will haunt many of us for years to come. If you expect me to have a simple clean answer to how this could happen, I don’t have it.”
Dzhokhar’s past life, Clarke insisted, should dictate the jury’s decision. “We’ve shown you that Jahar Tsarnaev is not the worst of the worst and that’s what the death penalty is reserved for, the worst of the worst,” she said. “Is his a life worth saving? Is there hope for him? Is there hope for redemption? … You’ve got to look at the person.”
Addressing the prosecution’s suggestion that life in prison would leave Tsarnaev as a continued safety risk, even if, as expected, he ends up at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. “There’s nothing in the evidence, nothing at all, to suggest that Dzhokhar will be difficult to house or manage in a prison,” she said. “Let’s get real, this isn’t a club. It isn’t a resort. This is the most rigid, punitive prison in America.”
“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will die in prison. The question is when and how,” Clarke said. “We’re asking you to choose life. Yes, even for the Boston Marathon bomber.”
A brief rebuttal presentation ended with prosecutor Bill Weinreb characterizing life in prison without parole as the minimum punishment that could be inflicted. “Do these four deaths deserve something more?” he asked. And with that, the commencement of the grueling trial, the 12 members of the jury headed to the jury room to begin deliberations