In Boston Marathon bombing courtroom, gruesome testimony and dread at what is to come

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
CLICK IIMAGE for slideshow: It this courtroom sketch, U.S. Attorney William Weinreb, left, is depicted delivering opening statements in front of U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr., right rear, on the first day of the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Boston. Tsarnaev, depicted seated second from right between defense attorneys Judy Clarke, third from right, and Miriam Conrad, right, is charged with conspiring with his brother to place two bombs near the marathon finish line in April 2013, killing three and injuring 260 people. (AP Photo/Jane Flavell Collins)

BOSTON—The clock on the video said 2:49 p.m., and it was hard to imagine that anyone in the courtroom didn’t know what was coming up next. In the nearly two years since two bombs exploded near the finish line of the April 2013 Boston Marathon, footage of the two fireballs erupting along Boylston Street, one after the other, has been replayed millions of times, accompanied by gruesome photos and video of the bloody aftermath.

But as prosecutors began presenting their case against accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Wednesday with silent footage of those deadly bombs that killed three people and injured nearly 300 more, there was an edge in the air among the jurors, victims and others inside the Boston federal courtroom where the trial is taking place.

On the screen, dozens of runners could be seen dashing toward the finish line, not knowing that two pressure-cooker bombs filled with nails and ball bearings would soon turn that sunny Monday afternoon into a day of infamy. But the people in the courtroom knew something terrible was coming, and, in some ways, knowing that seemed to make it worse. As the seconds ticked by, they stared at the video with the kind of nervous, sick anticipation that can only be likened to watching a horror film — and it only got worse throughout the day as prosecutors unveiled the first few clips of what is expected to be extensive and often graphic video evidence aimed at convincing jurors that Tsarnaev is guilty and should die for his alleged role in the deadly attacks.

Jurors were presented with never-before-seen footage from inside Marathon Sports, the sporting goods store located just feet from where the first bomb was detonated. The blast blew part of the store’s windows out, and victims stumbled into the shop dazed and bleeding from pieces of shrapnel that had shredded their flesh. “It was like a scene from 'Saving Private Ryan' or 'Platoon' … something I never thought I would see in real life,” Shane O’Hara, the store’s manager, testified, his voice shaky.

That was followed moments later by grisly, up-close video of the aftermath of the first bomb shot by Colton Kilgore, a North Carolina man who had been on hand to film his mother-in-law crossing the finish line but ended up capturing several members of his family nearly bleeding to death from wounds sustained in the explosion.

Prosecutors paused the video at one point, and from the witness stand, Kilgore spoke of seeing his sister-in-law’s leg horrifically mangled by the bomb — testimony that seemed designed to brace the room for what was coming. But some jurors still gasped seconds later as the Kilgore’s footage showed the woman sitting stunned in a thickening pool of blood, her foot nearly blown off as people around her moaned and screamed in anguish. It was the most gruesome evidence shown on the first day of testimony, but prosecutors have braced family members and victims for even worse things are to come, including autopsy photos of the three who died — their bodies burned and torn apart by the bombs.

By that point in the afternoon, there was little mystery about who was behind the attacks. On Wednesday morning, Tsarnaev sat silently as his attorney Judy Clarke told the jury she wouldn’t even try to argue that her 21-year-old client wasn’t involved in the bombings. “It was him,” Clarke said, motioning towards the young, shaggy-haired defendant, who showed little reaction. She told the jury her client and his domineering other brother, Tamerlan, had committed the “senseless, horribly misguided acts.” At the same time, Clarke pleaded with them to keep their “hearts and minds open” for the penalty phase, where the defense is expected to argue Tsarnaev was a troubled kid who was allured by his self-radicalized brother.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: This Monday, April 15, 2013 photo shows a man who was dubbed Suspect No. 2 in the Boston Marathon bombings by law enforcement, on the left side of the frame, wearing a white baseball cap, walking away from the scene of the explosions. The FBI identified him as 19-year-old college student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan, 26, previously known as Suspect No. 1, killed an MIT police officer, severely wounded another lawman and hurled explosives at police in a car chase and gun battle during a night of violence, early Friday, April 19, 2013. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed overnight. (AP Photo/David Green)

Jurors gasped again when later that afternoon prosecutors introduced into evidence a previously unseen picture of the scene near the finish line just before the first bomb exploded. On the stand was Rebekah Gregory, who had just told the jury that the explosion had been so strong that it shifted all her teeth, causing two to fall out. Last fall, her mangled left leg was finally amputated after doctors decided they couldn’t save it.

Prosecutor Nadine Pellegrini asked Gregory to find herself in the picture. “Do you recognize that man?” she asked, pointing out a guy with sunglasses and a dark baseball hat who stood next to her in the photo. It was Tamerlan Tsarnaev in what was the first image to link the older brother to the first blast site. Among some in the room, there was a sharp intake of breath at seeing Tamerlan there — though Pelligrini did not identify him by name. “No,” Gregory calmly testified. She had not noticed him that day.

A few feet away, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat at the defense table staring into the video screen at the picture of his brother. If he had any reaction, no one but the judge, jury and his attorneys could see it.

Earlier, William Weinreb, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the case, spoke of Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an equal partner in the mayhem of that day, but told the jury he wouldn’t be in court. “That’s because the defendant killed him,” he bluntly said, explaining that the younger Tsarnaev ran over his brother with a car during an altercation with police four days after the bombings.

At the defense table, Tsarnaev sat still as Weinreb spoke, avoiding eye contact with anyone, even as the dozens of victims and family members of those who died stared at the back of his head — many seeing him in the flesh for the very first time. Aside from his attorneys, the defendant was alone in court. No one in his family had shown up to support him. As recently as January, his father, Anzor, had told reporters that his sons were framed — echoing comments that his older sister had made to reporters last summer. It’s unclear if the family has been cooperative with Tsarnaev’s defense team.

On Thursday, testimony is likely to get even more gruesome. Jeff Bauman, the New Hampshire man who became the public face of the bombing after both of his legs were ripped off by the first bomb, is expected to testify, both about his injuries and tipping off the FBI to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who stood right next to him near the finish line before the explosion. Bauman’s story is familiar, but as with other testimony and evidence presented in the case so far, knowing what happened is unlikely to make it any less horrific.