BOSTON — On a busy stretch of Boylston Street, there’s not much to remind passersby that a powerful bomb exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 8-year-old Martin Richard and injuring his family.
There are no monuments or plaques. On a recent day, a ragged yellow-and-blue crocheted scarf — the colors of the marathon — hung off a lamppost; a young tree jutted out of the ground in place of one that was shredded in the blast nearly two years ago.
“There’s not much here,” Tim Smillie, 25, said as he walked past. “But I don’t think anyone will forget this is the spot — not anyone who was here when the bombing happened.”
Several miles away, at the federal courthouse at Boston Harbor, opening statements are expected to begin as soon as this week in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man accused of carrying out the terrorist attack with his brother. Together, prosecutors say, the brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs during the marathon, killing three people overall.
For Boston, the trial will mean a painful recounting as federal prosecutors lay out their evidence in exhaustive detail in the hopes of persuading a jury to first convict and then sentence the 21-year-old Tsarnaev to death.
They probably will show the jury a short videotape — taken from a restaurant security camera — that has not been released publicly. Former and current U.S. law enforcement officials say it depicts Tsarnaev planting a bomb that would kill Martin, whose youth might be cited by prosecutors as an aggravating factor in support of the death penalty. The bomb also shredded the leg of the boy’s sister and wounded his father and mother, who lost an eye.
“It’s a horrible video,” one of the officials said. “You see [the child] die in front of your eyes.”
Tsarnaev, who faces 17 capital murder charges, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers have remained quiet while preparing for what is not only one of the most important trials in Boston’s history but also the most closely watched domestic terrorism trial since the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Investigators think that Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, set off the first bomb on Boylston Street and that, moments later, Tsarnaev detonated the second nearby. The attack wounded more than 260 other people and set off a wild manhunt during which prosecutors assert the pair killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hours after the shooting, the older brother was killed during a confrontation with police. Tsarnaev, badly wounded, was tracked to a boat behind a house in Watertown, not far from central Boston, and arrested. In the boat, officials said, investigators found a confession.
Tsarnaev’s defense team has repeatedly tried — and failed — to persuade Judge George A. O’Toole to move the proceedings to a city other than Boston, saying a fair trial is impossible here because emotions remain raw over the attack. They have also sought but not received a delay in the proceedings, saying that the January terrorist attacks in Paris created a climate hostile to their client.
With the judge’s go-ahead for the trial, Boston is bracing itself to relive the events that began April 15, 2013. If Tsarnaev is convicted, prosecutors will almost certainly bring victims, many of whom lost limbs, through the court to testify during the penalty phase.
Not all of them are eager to tell the world of their pain.
“I think it instigates on all sides,” said Jarrod Clowery, whose arms and legs were peppered with shrapnel from one of the bombs. “I think it’s just rehashing something that’s 2 years old.”
Persuading a jury to support a death sentence will not be easy. In the final weeks leading up to opening statements, potential jurors expressed mixed emotions about the prospect. “There’s no way in modern America today that I am going to vote for the death penalty,” one prospective juror told O’Toole.
If Tsarnaev is convicted, legal experts say, his defense lawyers might argue that the young man was pushed by his older brother to carry out the attack.
His age — he was 19 at the time of the bombings — could also be a mitigating factor in the penalty phase of the trial.
“In any death penalty case the deck is stacked against you the moment you walk in the door,” said Jason Wright, a former military lawyer who defended Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The government has already notified the jury that it is seeking to kill someone. So there is a bias already built into the system.”
In his corner, Tsarnaev will have David Bruck and Judy Clarke, prominent defense lawyers who beat the death penalty in the case of Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman convicted of drowning her two children and sentenced to life in prison.
“They couldn’t have a better team,” said Wright, who taught with Bruck at Washington and Lee University School of Law.
For the government, a seasoned team of federal prosecutors will argue the case, including Aloke S. Chakravarty, an assistant U.S. attorney who handled another major terrorism case in Boston.
That case involved a young man named Tarek Mehanna, who was accused of providing material support to al-Qaeda and conspiring to kill Americans. Mehanna’s Boston lawyer thought she had a strong defense in the case; the jury thought otherwise, convicting Mehanna in 10 hours after a lengthy trial in 2011.
“This was not a black-and-white case,” the lawyer, Janice Bassil, recounted. “I was pretty crushed when they came back so quickly.”
Chakravarty and his team have secured pleas in several cases connected to the Tsarnaevs, including that of Stephen Silva, who pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges. He is suspected of providing a handgun to the brothers, the same one used in the killing of the MIT officer, and could testify against Tsarnaev.
So far, one central figure has remained on the sidelines. Katherine Russell, the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has not been asked to testify in the trial, said Joshua Dratel, her lawyer.
During the trial, much of the testimony will come from law enforcement officials, many of whom were deeply involved in the chaos that followed the bombings.
That testimony will be emotional for much of Boston, including its Muslim community.
“These people disgraced Islam,” said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, referring to the Tsarnaev brothers. “I think that Bostonians understand that like everyone else we continue to grieve for the victims and families.”
For that reason, he said, the trial is welcome.
“I think as Bostonians we want to see the perpetrators brought to justice, and if that happens, there will be closure.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the year of the bombing. It took place in 2013, and the story has been corrected.