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Defense Team Urges Jury To Send Boston Bomber To Prison For Life


In a few words, here is the defense for the Boston Marathon bomber. He was drawn into the deadly plot by his older brother.


That's the essence of the case defense lawyers are building for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They're offering their side in the death penalty phase of his trial. They long ago admitted Tsarnaev's guilt, but say their client was drawn into the plot. That's just one thing they've said, as we hear from NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Defense attorneys began their case by telling jurors no punishment could ever equal the pain that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev caused to others. But, they said, a quick death might well be letting Tsarnaev off easier than making him spend decades locked away, forgotten and thinking about what he did. They showed jurors a picture of the supermax prison where Tsarnaev would serve a life sentence.

RON SULLIVAN: This was a very aggressive start by the defense to say, this is a serious, scary place, and to many, it's even worse than death.

SMITH: Harvard Law professor Ron Sullivan says Tsarnaev's lawyers were especially shrewd, suggesting to jurors that Tsarnaev himself may prefer to be a martyr, even though all signs suggest he's fully cooperating with his attorney's efforts to save his life.

SULLIVAN: All they need is one person who says, you know what? I don't want to give this guy what he wants. If he wants to be a martyr, I want to do the opposite.

SMITH: So far, the defense has focused their case far more on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev than Dzhokhar. Their first witnesses, who didn't even know Dzhokhar, described how Tamerlan was fanatical and obsessed with jihad, as they put it, and how he turned people off with his angry, aggressive preaching and outbursts at his mosque. Defense attorneys told jurors that in Chechen culture, you can't defy your older brother. Attorney David Hoose has handled another death penalty case in Massachusetts.

DAVID HOOSE: To me, it's classic mitigation testimony, at least in the sense that I was under the influence of a stronger personality, that this is a guy that you do not say no to.

SMITH: Hoose says the Tsarnaev team needs to explain what Tsarnaev did without sounding like they're excusing it. Yesterday, his lawyers said Tsarnaev was a good kid, then said the government was making him look worse by showing evidence out of context, just like they did with a photo of Tsarnaev flashing his middle finger. Hoose says the defense will keep reminding jurors how that one freeze-frame looks different when you see the whole video, with Tsarnaev fixing his hair, making other hand gestures and then for a split second, making the obscene gesture.

HOOSE: The defense is, I think, going to be able to show in context that this is a juvenile stunt when you view the whole thing. And it gives them a great lead-in to say that the government is giving you isolated pictures here. You have to view everything in context.

SMITH: The defense may take two weeks to fill in that context, calling witnesses on everything from the family's dysfunction and mental illness to adolescent brain development. But as prosecutors put it, lots of people come from messed up homes, but don't plant bombs to kill people. Tovia Smith, NPR News, at the federal court in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.