Two Years Later: The Boston Bomber on Trial

We’re approaching the two year anniversary of the tragedy that took place at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Few can forget where they were on April 15, 2013 when the news broke of two bombs that had exploded and injured hundreds.

Those two bombs that had been stored in book bags and walked into the race area killed three civilians and critically injured more than 260 other men, women, and children. Aside from the victims present at the race, an MIT police officer was killed in the ensuing chaos. An enormous man hunt went underway to find those responsible and within days two prime suspects were introduced: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, brothers with roots in Chechnya.

This month, the younger and only living brother, Dzhokhar, is on trial at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston where he faces the death penalty.  The question being asked at this trial is not whether Dzhokhar is guilty — his lawyer has already admitted guilt — the question is whether Dzhokhar will be sentenced to death or if he will receive life in prison.

The first thing I want all my legal eagles to know about this case is that the state of Massachusetts is not a death penalty state. For the death penalty to even be on the table, Eric Holder had to declare it thus. Why can he do that? Because terrorism is a federal offense.

Many people in the Muslim community were worried that this trial would quickly descend into an investigation of Islam and that it would further demonize the community. The Tsarnaev brothers both claimed to be Muslim despite certain actions prior to the bombings (in addition, of course, to the bombings themselves) that go completely against Islam.

In my followings of the trial, I’ve been surprised to find that it isn’t turning into a religious smear campaign. Yes, radical Islam is mentioned, the Quran is taken out of context and the word “jihad” is thrown around like a ball at the beach, but we’ve not yet gotten to the place where all Muslims are evil. In this case it’s just Dzhokhar that was evil.

The defense is arguing that Dzhokhar was introduced to the “global jihadist movement” by his brother Tamerlan who was very active in radical Islam and had connections to dangerous people in Russia who were under surveillance by the CIA.  In essence, Tamerlan’s ghost is also on trial here. If it can be proven that Tamerlan was the mastermind behind the events in Boston, Dzhokhar will not be sentenced to death.

Meanwhile the prosecution firmly believes that the brothers are equally guilty and Dzhokhar is culpable for all his own actions. This point is proving hard to sell when we have witnesses like Stephen Silva.

Stephen Silva was a close friend of Dzhokhar who describes the accused as a “real” guy, “never showing disdain for America” or being “prone to violence”. He says Dzhokhar was quiet, shy and “humble,” generally a good friend and good person. Dzhokhar and Stephen were both drug users and sellers at UMass Dartmouth but they were of the peaceful division. Stephen says he was surprised when one day, several months before the bombings, Dzhokhar said he needed a gun because he wanted to rob some kids at a neighboring campus. That was the first flicker of violence Stephen remembers seeing from his friend.

However, Stephen’s testimony is compromised by the fact that he is also facing criminal charges revolving around his distribution of heroin. This testimony he’s offering is in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The state then offered digital evidence in the form of the electronics that Dzhokhar owned. On his computer, which was shared among several people, investigators found issues of “Inspire” – a magazine produced by Al-Qaeda and used to recruit young people in the West. There were also saved lectures of Anwar al-Alaki (I have no idea how to spell that) a known terrorist motivational speaker. While these materials were found in Dzhokhar’s possession, the prosecution has still failed to directly link him to what is being called the “global jihadist movement.” Is he a hardcore jihadi or is he a confused kid that got brainwashed? Is it possible that we are all susceptible to some kind of mass marketed call to action?

The defense brings up an incredible point: unless the FBI was over his shoulder while Dzhokhar was surfing the web there is no definitive way to prove that he downloaded this material. The rest of the computer was littered with Jay Z albums and episodes of The Walking Dead.

While this trial is emotionally charged, it’s also a moment for everyone to stop and take account. How many people are responsible for the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers? We say constantly that it takes a village to raise a child, well it takes villages to mold minds and create monsters. How dependable is the American justice system? Will this trial remain a fair review of one man’s actions, or will an entire religion fall victim to shame — again?

If you want to keep up with the specifics of the Tsarnaev trial, check out the podcast Crossing the Finish Line, available on your preferred podcast provider.

Image by Rebecca Hildreth