Opening statements get underway in Boston Marathon bomber trial

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Opening statements get underway in Boston Marathon bomber trial

BOSTON — One is a self-employed housepainter. Another works for a local water department. There’s a mother of four who has twin boys in the eighth grade; a registered nurse who bought an RV to travel cross-country with her boyfriend this spring; and a retired actuary whose cousin was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 but who insists she can remain impartial in the most high-profile terrorism case on U.S. soil since those deadly 2001 attacks.

They are among the 18 people — 12 jurors and six alternates — who will decide if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lives or dies for his alleged role in the dual bombings at the April 2013 Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured nearly 300 more. After almost two months of jury selection, opening arguments in the case are set to begin Wednesday, in spite of continued efforts by Tsarnaev’s defense team to move the trial out of Boston.

On Monday, the defense filed their fourth change-of-venue request with the federal district court, arguing that Tsarnaev can’t get a fair trial in a city where many are still recovering, both emotionally and physically, from the attacks. Their three previous requests to relocate the trial — along with two more put before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit — were denied. But Tsarnaev’s attorneys have sought to bolster their latest argument by pointing to the final set of jurors, insisting that there are too few minority members and too many who either already believe their client is guilty or have a personal connection to the bombings that jeopardizes their ability to be impartial.

Of the 10 women and eight men picked for the trial, all are white and most are middle-aged. At least three said during the individual questioning of prospective jurors that they already believe Tsarnaev is guilty. “Obviously, he was involved in something,” said Juror 83, who, like others summoned in the case, has been identified by number rather than by name, and will be for the remainder of the trial. But like the other jurors, he insisted he could be objective.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo exclusively licensed to Reuters by photographer Dan Lampariello after he took the photo in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15, 2013. Two simultaneous explosions ripped through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing at least two people and injuring dozens on a day when tens of thousands of people pack the streets to watch the world famous race. (Dan Lampariello/REUTERS)

Juror 487, a mother of four from Cape Cod, said she also thought Tsarnaev was guilty based on media reports about the case. But during questioning last month, she said she could remain open-minded, telling the judge, “You’re not guilty until you’re proven guilty.”

But she expressed concern about the gruesomeness of the evidence expected to be presented in the case and what effect that might have on her. Prosecutors have said they plan to show autopsy photos of the three victims killed at the marathon — Krystle Campbell, 29; Lingzi Lu, 23; and Martin Richard, 8 — their bodies burned and bloodied and embedded with shrapnel from pressure-cooker bombs used in the attack.

Tsarnaev’s defense team has pushed to exclude the photos from testimony, calling them “horrific” and “highly disturbing,” and arguing that no one is disputing how the three died. But prosecutors say the photos are necessary to show that the victims died from a weapon of mass destruction, which is one of the 30 federal charges Tsarnaev faces for his alleged role in the attacks.

Tsarnaev, 21, is accused of plotting and carrying out the twin bombings along with his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed during a confrontation with police four days after the attacks. The brothers are also accused of shooting and killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer while on the run from the authorities. Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, faces the death penalty if convicted.

In the face of what appears to be overwhelming evidence — including surveillance video and an alleged confession note — Tsarnaev’s defense team is not expected to argue that their client wasn’t involved in the bombings, but rather that he was under the influence of his domineering older brother. Yet with opening arguments finally set to begin, prosecutors have sought to limit that defense, insisting in court on Monday that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not the one on trial and that any discussion of his role or influence should be pushed to the penalty phase.

But David Bruck, one of Tsarnaev’s attorneys, argued that if it weren’t for Tamerlan “the Boston Marathon bombing would have never occurred.” He accused the government of trying to “sanitize” what is a “conspiracy” case by de-emphasizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s involvement. He argued that the defense should be allowed to present evidence that his client’s motive “may well have been the defendant’s domination by, love for, adoration of, submissiveness to … his older brother.”

Judge George O’Toole, who is overseeing the case, has yet to rule on the motion.

Boston Police Special Operations officers use a bomb-sniffing dog while searching a vehicle on a street near the federal courthouse, in Boston, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. A panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated Tuesday after two months of jury selection for the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Federal prosecutors have painted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a cold-blooded terrorist who knew exactly what he was doing when he allegedly detonated the second of two bombs along Boylston Street near the marathon’s finish line. They say Tsarnaev left a note scrawled in a Watertown, Mass., boat where he hid after the blasts. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” the note read, according to his indictment. “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.” Prosecutors say that, questioned in the hospital after he was apprehended, Tsarnaev confessed to the bombings and showed no remorse.

But the defense team has moved to blunt the impact of those statements. This week they pushed to bring the boat where Tsarnaev was captured to the federal courthouse in Boston, arguing that jurors should see firsthand where their client was captured and where he allegedly scribbled his confession inside the vessel. Bruck argued that it’s necessary to understand Tsarnaev’s state of mind as he hid inside what Bruck likened to “a crypt.”

William Weinreb, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston who is leading the prosecution, accused the defense of trying to elicit sympathy for Tsarnaev, saying their real goal is to show a boat “riddled with bullets” and covered in the defendant’s blood. He argued that cutting out the panels that contain the alleged confession and presenting it in court should be “enough.”

In December, the government told the defense it is prepared to present more than 700 witnesses and more than 1,600 pieces of evidence against Tsarnaev — though that was a tentative tally. The defense has not said who is on its witness list, but in court last month attorneys hinted that family members of Katherine Russell, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow, could be among those they call--though Joshua Dratel, an attorney for Russell, told Yahoo News neither his client nor her family had been called as a witness yet. Both sides could reveal their witness lists as early as tomorrow.

(L-R) Krystle Campbell, 29, Lu Lingzi, a Boston University graduate student from China, and Martin Richard, 8, who were killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, in Boston. More than 260 others were injured in the blasts. Opening statements are scheduled Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in the federal death penalty trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for allegedly conspiring with his brother to place twin bombs near the finish line of the race. (AP Photo)

One of the biggest unknowns is whether anyone in Tsarnaev’s family will testify on his behalf, or whether they will even show up in court. His parents and two sisters have publicly denied the Tsarnaev brothers’ involvement in the bombings, arguing that they were “framed.” The defense has not said if Tsarnaev himself will testify.

In court on Tuesday, the accused bomber was seated at a table facing prospective jurors; for much of the proceedings he slunk back in a chair, hiding from their stares. But as the judge called out the numbers of the final 18 jurors selected, Tsarnaev looked up and studied them as each person took a seat in the jury box, perhaps knowing his life is in their hands.