“This is Jahar Tsarnaev, unrepentant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadine Pellegrini said, before a large-scale color image of the defendant, enraged and flashing the middle finger at a security camera in a shot taken in court during a pretrial hearing in 2013. The shocking visual, met with gasps from onlookers, formed the crux of the prosecution’s argument in their opening statements for the penalty phase of the case against Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev: that Dzhokhar (a.k.a. Jahar) was a full participant in the attack who remained callous to the horror it caused. After finding him guilty of all charges earlier this month, the jury has now reconvened to decide whether or not the defendant should receive the death penalty.
Pellegrini and the other attorneys on her team were in a very difficult position entering into this phase. On Friday, Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of 8-year-old victim Martin Richard, came out against the death penalty in a letter that ran on the front page of the Boston Globe, asking the government to take the option off of the table, saying, “We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future — for us, for Boston, and for the country.” That was followed up by another Globe piece in which Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, a young husband and wife who each lost legs in the explosion, echoed the sentiment.
The buzz over the victims’ wishes became so intense that when attorneys on each side entered into a lengthy closed-door meeting with the judge this morning before proceedings began, many in the court were convinced that the government might be revoking their request for death. Those predictions proved unfounded when Pellegrini stood to deliver the opening remarks before an audience that included Bill Richard. Telling the jury “you need to know and understand why their lives mattered,” Pellegrini underscored the tragedy of the four murdered victims and the brutality of the attack. She presented as exhibits photographs of each in familiar scenarios, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or smiling at a family wedding. “Jahar Tsarnaev killed each of them in a way that they had time to feel pain, had time to feel scared and frightened but they had no time to say good-bye. That is the very essence of terrorism,” she argued.
Pellegrini’s statements fought back against the defense’s suggestion that Dzhokhar was forced into participation by a controlling and domineering brother, who planned out and was the active player in the violence. “Tamerlan Tsarnaev is an easy target, an easy target when he lived and certainly an easy target when he’s dead,” she said. An image was presented of the crowd outside the Forum restaurant, showing the group of children behind which Dzhokhar would set down the second bomb. “Many people, millions of them, face troubles in their lives. Who among them murders a child with a bomb?” Pellegrini asked, sidestepping any of the mitigating factors that could be presented by the defense.
“Jahar Tsarnaev was and is unrepentant, uncaring, and untouched by the havoc and the sorrow that he has created,” she summed up, before finishing with the finger photo. There’s no way of knowing exactly how tangible an effect the picture will have for the jury, but as visuals go, this one seems hard to shake.