In opening arguments on Monday, lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were trying to convince a 12-person jury to save the 21-year-old’s life.
It’s not a one-dimensional plea. Defense attorney David Bruck presented an image of the ADX Supermax prison in Colorado wherein, if even one juror decides against sending Tsarnaev to death, he’ll soon spend the rest of his life. Once a day, he’ll be let outside for an hour, where he’ll be held in a cage. The experience, as one inmate describe it, is much akin to standing “inside of a deep, empty swimming pool.”
The defense denied that they were trying to eschew their client’s responsibility in the deadly attack that left four dead and dozens of others maimed. “No one is going to say that you should feel sorry for him,” said Bruck.
But the second prong of their argument somewhat contradicts that. They are trying to convince the jury that Tamerlan, his older brother, was the ring leader—that he manipulated and even brainwashed Dzhokhar into carrying out the attack.
“You’ll find that Jahar was really who he appeared to be—a lost teenager with very little motivation to do anything on his own,” he said.
The one driving force in the then-19-year-old’s life? His family. Specifically, his defense says, his brother.
“In a family like Jahar’s, turn your back to your older brother and you are no one,” explained Bruck.
To make this argument stick, the defense began its first wave of testimony by calling attention to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife.
Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, 25, is the mother of Tamerlan’s daughter, the now-4-year-old Zahara. The defense played a video Tamerlan took of his daughter while she played on a swingset. Zahara’s laughter echoed through the courtroom.
At the time of the bombing Russell was living with Tamerlan in his cramped Cambridge apartment while he was planning the attack. She’s the daughter of a Rhode Island doctor and nurse, and only converted to Islam after meeting Tamerlan at a club during her freshman year at Suffolk College.
Her mother, Judith Russell, testified that the first time she saw her daughter cover her head was when she went to visit her at her Boston apartment. It was the same day that Russell told her mother she was pregnant with Tamerlan’s child. It was “Katy’s” junior year. She dropped out of school soon thereafter.
What exactly Russell knew and when she knew it has been the subject of no shortage of media speculation. Although federal agents investigating the attack still have not confirmed where the bombs were built, at the very least, the Tsarnaevs stored bomb parts at the home where she lived.
Immediately after he was detained, Dzhokhar reportedly told investigators on his hospital bed that Russell had nothing to do with the attack. Shortly after the Tsarnaevs were identified as suspects her lawyers told reporters that she was cooperating with the investigation.
What she knew about the attack beforehand remains unclear.
Her attorney, Joshua L. Dratel, told The Daily Beast that her attorneys would not comment about what she knew about the bombing attack and when.
“We’ve never talked about that and we’re not going to,” her attorney, Joshua L. Dratel, told The Daily Beast.
“She did not commit any crimes and they have no evidence that she committed any crime,” says Dratel.
Therein lies the enigma that is Katherine Russell. How could she have been so close to a terrorist mastermind without suspecting his terrible plan? It would not be a crime for her to have suspected her husband and not turn him in. But could she really be that naïve? The testimony today suggests that the answer could have been yes.
The media is not the only group speculating about Russell’s knowledge of the attack. In May 2013, NBC News reported that “authorities” were still investigating her possible involvement, and that she was tested for a possible match to female DNA found on one of the bombs. It didn’t match.
In April of this year, ABC News reiterated that the investigation into Russell is ongoing, and added that investigators suspected her as the woman who accompanied Tamerlan to purchase one of the pressure cookers—later used to build a bomb—from Macy’s. Her New York attorney, Dratel, denies this report.
The investigation into his client is irrelevant, says Dratel. The last time investigators reached out to her and her family was in late 2013, when her mother and sisters were called to a grand jury.
The investigation into Russell will likely be open forever. And that’s just fine, Dratel thinks.
“They don’t send out a notice saying you’re free and clear,” he told The Daily Beast. “They never do.”
Alhough Russell’s lawyer will not comment on what she knew and when, he calls her a “bystander.” And Dratel says questioning of his client’s continued use of a head scarf, suggesting that she has not turned away from the religion her husband first introduced her to, is “hypocritical.”
“This is a free country,” he says.
“She’s trying to live her life, no one wants to let her,” he says.
In the first wave of testimony, the defense brought forth a complicated picture of what exactly Russell’s life was like.
The jury learned that before she met Tamerlan, she liked sports, ballet, and was “artsy.” In her sophomore year of college, she bleached her hair platinum blond. The next year, she was pregnant, and wearing dark scarves.
Her on-again-off-again relationship with Tamerlan—whom she says often cheated on her—led to her increased interest in Islam, testified Russell’s friend, Gina Crawford.
“He put that idea in her head, I guess.”
Like wife, like brother, the defense wants to suggest.
The defense even attempted to ask Judith Russell about any potential abuse Katherine may have suffered at the hands of Tsarnaev, but that line of questioning was objected to and sustained.
Katherine Russell became more religious after Tamerlan returned home for a six-month stint in Dagestan in 2012, her friend said.
“She became more intense about Islam,” said Crawford. “All the conversations we had would always lead there.”
Despite her attempts to better get to know the husband of her friend, Crawford only met Tamerlan once when the couple visited her at the Starbucks where she worked. Neither Crawford nor Russell’s mother were invited to her wedding.
But what was Katherine Russell like at the time of the bombing? And who is she today?
When Crawford texted her friend at the time of the explosions, Russell said she was OK.
“As far as I know Tamerlan was at home in Cambridge,” she texted back. But Russell later added that she was not entirely sympathetic to the victims’ fate. “A lot more people are killed every day in Syria + other places,” she wrote.
And her friend remained loyal. “I’m here for you if [you] need me I love you,” Crawford wrote after she found out Russell’s husband was both the bombing suspect and now dead.
“You don’t have to say anything to me I just want to hug you,” Crawford wrote again. Katherine did not reply.
The two friends have since spoken and are still in touch.
So how is Russell doing now?
“She is healing from the experience,” says her mother. “It hasn’t been as hard as the victims in Boston, but she is getting her life together and is more like the Katy that we knew.”