BOSTON (AFP) — A crack defense team launched its bid Monday to save Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from the death penalty, blaming his older brother Tamerlan, “consumed by jihad,” for the 2013 carnage.
“As awful as his crime was, life in prison faced with what he has done is a better choice for everyone,” said lawyer David Bruck in his opening statement at the penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s trial.
The 21-year-old former student was found guilty this month of carrying out the 2013 bombings that killed three people and wounded 264 in one of the deadliest attacks in the US since 9/11.
The immigrant of Chechen descent was convicted on all 30 counts related to the bombings, the murder of a police officer, a carjacking and a shootout while on the run in April 2013.
Bruck showed the Boston courtroom a picture of America’s only federal “supermax” prison in the wilds of Colorado, where he said Tsarnaev would live out the remainder of his days in obscurity.
“You will punish him and protect society at the same time,” Bruck said.
There would be “no martyrdom” for the killer who claimed the attacks were to avenge US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the mastermind was older brother Tamerlan, 26, who was shot dead by police four days after the attacks, the defense argued.
Tamerlan was “consumed by jihad,” going to Russia when Tsarnaev was a 17-year-old at high school and returning to the United States six months later, Bruck said.
Witnesses spoke of an arrogant Muslim with a temper who was passionate about boxing but who struggled to integrate in America.
A string of failures fueled his self-radicalization and he became an avid consumer of online extremist videos.
“If Tamerlan hadn’t been in the picture, would Jahar have done this on his own?” asked Bruck, using the Americanized name favored by Tsarnaev the younger’s friends.
Speaking softly, Bruck portrayed an itinerant family history and culture where authority stemmed from the father and older brother.
It was a “nomadic” life of “turmoil” moving from Kyrgyzstan to Dagestan, before they settled in the Boston region in 2002.
The American dream “began to crumble,” he said.
The father, Anzor, fell sick. The mother, Zubeidat, never accepted by her husband’s family, turned to fundamentalist religion, dressing in black and coaching Tamerlan.
After their parents, suffering from psychological problems, moved back to Russia in 2012, Tamerlan became the only adult reference for his little brother, Bruck said.
He was “a lost teenager with very little motivation on his own, raised to take directions from adults” and when Tamerlan began to “go off the rails, he pulled his younger brother” with him, the lawyer added.
Muslim cleric Loay Assaf told of two incidents in 2012 and 2013 when Tamerlan furiously chastised him for talking about Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, saying they were not in accordance with Islam.
Tamerlan’s mother-in-law, nurse Judith Russell, described a man obsessed with Islam and politics who insisted she read the Koran.
Islam, Russell said, “became an obsession.”
He harped on about politics, American influence and the “harm” it was doing to Muslim countries, she said.
Tamerlan also had few friends. About 90 emails were recovered from his email compared to 5,000 for Dzhokhar, an expert said.
Another witness said that unlike Tamerlan, Dzhokhar showed no aggression.
Tsarnaev, thin and pale, showed no emotion. Even during the most harrowing testimony, he has refused to look at his victims, many of whom have walked on prosthetic limbs to the witness box.
Tsarnaev’s convictions leave the jury only two sentencing options: the death penalty or life without parole.
The defense is expected to take two weeks to make their case for life behind bars.
An opinion poll published in The Boston Globe newspaper found that just 19 percent of residents in Massachusetts say Tsarnaev should be put to death.
In Boston, the number fell to 15 percent with nearly 66 percent of city residents favoring a life sentence.
Jurors have to agree unanimously on the death penalty, which applies to 17 of 30 counts on which he has been convicted, or else Tsarnaev will spend the rest of his life in jail.
In America’s “supermax” federal prison, in Colorado, he will be securely locked up.
“He will never be heard of again,” Bruck assured.