The pitfall-covered, uphill challenge of making Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into an empathetic figure in the eyes of the jury, after he has already been found guilty of murdering four people and the attempted mass murder of hundreds more, must be daunting.
The defense has been interspersing the personal-character witnesses with some of the more mundane, expert testimony.
In the second week of presenting its case, the defense has called school friends, teachers, teammates and family members. Each offered reminiscences of the boy and young man they thought they knew so well. Watching them dig through their memories on this stage while staring out at the mostly oblivious Dzhokhar leaves me feeling antipathy for them, but not much for him.
It’s impossible to tell whether the jury is buying any of it. A third-grade teacher remembers a hard-working young pupil, a woman who had a high-school crush on Dzhokhar says “he had a sweetness about him.” The defense is seeking not to find one witness who clearly makes Dzhokhar’s life worth saving, but to gradually winnow away at the presumed resolve of the jury.
The defense team opened this week with some of Dzhokhar’s Russian family members — women who appeared out of place in the austere surroundings of a federal court building. They had been brought directly from obscure corners of the old country to testify. Far from home, these cousins and aunts described the child they had known and the child they have lost. All were women. Some, especially those from the obscure mountain villages of Dagestan and Chechnya had a beautiful stoicism in their features. Each in turn cracked and cried when confronted with questions about Dzhokhar’s childhood. An elderly aunt from the caucuses simply couldn’t stop crying and had to be helped from the court.
I was tucked in the back right corner of the courtroom for most of these sketches — drawing with binoculars again. These hardened beautiful faces were a challenge, with their windswept features and emotional eye creases moist with tears, but I was determined to do them justice. The family resemblance from one generation to the next was unmistakable.
During one portion of their tearful testimony, Dzhokhar reached for the tissues himself to wipe his eyes. An incident I honestly admit I never thought I’d see, and one that after his inability to shed a tear for his victims, can’t have done him much good in the eyes of the jury. As he was being led from the court he turned and blew a kiss to his aunt (sketched below) who was prostate arms outstretched across the barrier.
One of the other strains of dissent that the defense is attempting to nurture in the jury is the belief in Dzhokhar as one of the victims – a victim of a broken family, a victim of elder brother traditions, and a victim of the extremity of his deceased brother Tamerlan’s personal politics, and as a victim of his brother’s religious extremism. To foster all this we heard from expert witnesses on Dagestani and Chechen traditions, childhood brain development and multiple family, friend and acquaintance testimony on the gradual and creeping depravity of Tamerlan’s slide into jihad.
On Tuesday the contents of Tamerlan’s laptop was discussed at length by Michael Reynolds, a Princeton professor on Eurasia Studies, who had been hired by the defense specifically to review its contents. He described the bulk of the work he found there as being broken into three categories; instructional videos on Islam, atrocity videos (many of which were from Syria), and lastly motivational videos many showing jihadis fighting in Dagestan and Chechnya. He described these last as being, “depictions of young men standing for something larger than themselves,” and that they could be powerfully influential.
A lengthy, hostile cross-examination of Reynolds by prosecution lawyer William D. Weinreb followed. I had managed a seat in the front row and managed this sketch of counselor Weinreb in a forced casual stance as he surgically dissected most of the arguments previously built by the defense.
The day-to-day workings of the trial continue to fascinate me. The protesters, the police, the lawyers, the clerks, the paralegals, the U.S. marshals and the media – they all have their assigned role. I generally try and get a representative sketch of some obscure portion of this Machiavellian stage-play twice a day, one in the early morning and another late in the day.
I did this very quick sketch of a Department of Homeland Security police officer one morning this week. I could see my own refection in the glass. Then late on Tuesday evening after filing my daily sketches by e-mail from my office in Starbucks, I reentered the court and did this sketch of the Boston skyline through the massive curved glass frontage. I did it while sitting on the bench outside courtroom nine where Tsarnaev is being tried. The only people left were the cleaners, and a New York Times reporter on a bench 100 feet to my left.
Wednesday was a day of lengthy delays followed by churlish cross-examinations.
As part of the defense’s “bad-boy leader Tamerlan, good-guy follower Dzhokhar” narrative, they arranged to interview Elmirza Khozhugov, a former friend and former husband of their sister, Ailina. Khozhugov was unfortunately unavailable for travel, so he would instead have to be interviewed via live video feed from a U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The prosecution was less than happy with this, as there was no enforceable way for him to be sworn in under oath.
Sketching from a monitor relaying video from the other side of the world is a very grainy affair, so I instead went for one of my soon to be patented “full court” scenes.
Khozhugov described Tamerlan in their early friendship “as charismatic, friendly, goofy and fun to be with.” He described Tamerlan’s younger brother as studious, quiet and polite, and he said that “being the younger brother, he listened to his older brother. He would go along.”
“There’s a saying we have in Chechnya: In a family with seven sons, it is better to be a dog than the younger son.”
The morning ended after brief testimony from a special education teacher who praised Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s volunteer work in her ”Best Buddies” class for developmentally delayed children. “Quiet and respectful,” she said. The prosecution did not cross-examine. In the afternoon, Dzhokhar’s math teacher who called him – uh huh – “mature, self-motivated and smart.”
The day ended with a lengthy, frequently interrupted cross-examination of Mark Bezy, a prisons consultant brought in to persuade the jury that life in a super-max prison without chance of parole would be no summer camp for Dzhokhar. I did this sketch of an extremely bemused, almost bored looking back row of the public gallery as the pithy back and forth between the prosecution and Bezy went on.
On Thursday we learned after our longest delay so far that as the team of lawyers defending Dzhokhar prepare to wrap up their case, they’ve run into opposition from prosecutors over their last potential witness, Sister Helen Prejean.
Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun whose relationship with a death row inmate inspired the book “Dead Man Walking,” which was adapted into a film. Whether she makes it to the stand, we’ll find out on Monday.
I have been watching Dzhokhar come and go for four weeks, and though he continues to show little in the way of emotion, or to really show much interest in what is going on around him at all, I do think that his physical appearance has deteriorated in that time. His skin has become more pale and sallow, his beard has become scraggly, his eyes now are sunken and his flowing hair does not have any shine.
Back to court on Monday, his own life in the balance.
Full Tsarnaev trial gallery here.
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