Mass Murders

‘They Made Me Do It’ Defense Fizzles in Boston

The defenses in the two murder trials gripping Boston—one with Aaron Hernandez, the other with now-convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—have a lot in common.

If the jury has any sympathy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the sole surviving bomber of the 2013 marathon attacks, they didn’t show it this week. After more than a month of testimony and arguments, the 12-person panel took just a day and a half to answer the 99 questions on the verdict sheet and find him guilty of all 30 counts.

The bombs he set off with his brother Tamerlan brutally killed three people, and injured hundreds of others. He’s also been convicted of carjacking and kidnapping, murdering MIT police officer Sean Collier, seriously injuring MBTA officer Richard Donahue, as well as firearm and destruction of property charges.

Because he’s being tried capitally, the jury will now hear evidence, arguments, and testimonies in the sentencing phase of the trial. Lawyers from both sides present their reasons for and against preserving the 21-year-old’s life.

The spotlight is on Massachusetts murder cases this month, and not just because a domestic terrorist is on trial. Earlier this week, lawyers in the case for Aaron Hernandez presented their closing arguments, too.

The former tight end for the New England Patriots is charged in the shooting death of his friend Odin Lloyd. Lloyd’s body was found in June of 2013 in an industrial park a mile from Hernandez’s North Attleboro home. He was shot six times at point blank range with a .45 caliber Glock. Prosecutors never found a murder weapon, but they did find a joint with Hernandez’s DNA on it at the scene of the crime.

Hernandez is also facing additional murder charges for a 2012 drive-by shooting outside a Boston nightclub.

Hordes of journalists from all over the country have flocked to Massachusetts, gathering in large groups outside Boston’s federal courthouse and the Bristol County Superior Courthouse in Fall River.

The two cases have captured the public’s imagination not just because of the horrific nature of the crimes, but because of the strange and twisted narratives surrounding the defendants themselves.

To make matters even stranger, the cases against the tatted tight end and the moppy-headed stoner-turned-terrorist are not entirely dissimilar.

Hernandez was once a rising star from Bristol, Conn. He played for a team that’s had more Super Bowl wins in the last 15 years than any other team in the NFL. His is a tale of rags to riches—and then a very great fall.

Tsarnaev was 19 years old when he set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon finish line. The horrific crime shocked companions of the doe-eyed bomber. He may have been dropping out of college, but before the bombing he was extremely popular and well liked. The captain of his high school wrestling team, he had a large group of friends from whom he hid his demonic plan.

“He’s a person I would consider one of my best friends, back in the day,” said Stephen Silva, a friend of Tsarnaev’s, earlier in the trial. Silva saw him just a few weeks before the attack and said he knew nothing of the jihadist “Jahar” described by the prosecution in court. He, like many of Tsarnaev’s friends, was deeply disturbed by his actions, and how little indication he made of his monstrous plan.

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In closing arguments Hernandez’s lawyers admitted that he was there when Lloyd was killed, but it was Hernandez’s Bristol friends Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz who pulled the trigger. Wallace and Ortiz are facing murder charges in a separate trial.

“He was a 23-year-old kid, who witnessed something—a shocking killing, committed by somebody he knew. He really didn’t know what to do,” said James Sultan, about his client, a 245-pound football player with knuckle tattoos.

Judy Clarke, who presented the closing in the Tsarnaev trial, called her a defendant a “kid,” too.

“This is a kid doing kid things,” she said of his Twitter account. The prosecution claims his account hits at his radical jihadist ideology. Clarke noted that in some instances, the FBI was misinterpreting Eminem lyrics.

Going into the trial Clarke already admitted that “it was him,” but attorneys still theoretically had a chance to fight a few of the conspiracy charges against him. He was charged, and convicted, on three counts of conspiracy—conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, conspiracy to bomb a public place, and conspiracy to maliciously destroy property resulting in death.

But the defense’s argument was that the bombing was not an agreement between equals, and instead that Dzhokhar “followed” his older brother, Tamerlan. It’s an argument that’s crucial to the defense’s argument in the sentencing phase.

We have not heard this argument yet in full, as the defense was not allowed to introduce a substantial amount of mitigating evidence in the guilt phase of the trial. They did, however, point out that Tamerlan’s—and not Dzhokhar’s—fingerprints were all over the bombs, and that Dzhokhar may not have downloaded jihadist material onto his computer himself.

For now, the jury is not buying the defense’s claim that Tamerlan was the sole mastermind and Dzhokhar was merely a submissive sheep. If they did, then it’s likely they would have come back with a not-guilty verdict on at least one of the conspiracy charges against him.

Though a guilty verdict on all of the conspiracy charges is a discouraging sign for the defense, perhaps the defense team can take solace in knowing that the jury at least returned on the first day of deliberation to ask for clarification on what exactly conspiracy is. After all, they will only need one juror to side with them to save Tsarnaev’s life.

Conspiracy is a crucial element of the Hernandez trial too. The prosecution has not been able to locate the murder weapon, and though they described the way that Hernandez may have pulled the trigger, they have not brought up any evidence in court that pegs him as the shooter.

Both of these cases have focuses on the defendants’ mentalities surrounding the two separate crimes.

“Who was in control?” said William McCauley, the prosecutor presenting the argument against Hernandez, according to The Boston Globe. “He’s in control... He believed he could kill Odin Lloyd and that no one would ever believe he was involved.”

Meanwhile, the government in the Tsarnaev trial presented a similar argument when explaining why the jury should find Dzhokar guilty of murdering MIT Officer Sean Collier.

“It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger. Both the defendant and his brother are equally guilty of this crime,” argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty.

The jury agreed with Chakravarty.

But no matter which way their juries rule on Hernandez’s murder charges, or on Tsarnaev’s life, the trials have brought forth two very disturbing character portraits.

Prosecutions against both Hernandez and Tsarnaev argue the defendants had a dark and twisted side of them that they kept separate from their public personas. For Tsarnaev, this persona included an adherence to jihadism and a flippant regard for life. Hernandez is the million-dollar athlete who can treat someone to a night on the town and invite them into a car with a smile in one moment, and then shoot them in the back in the next. Both character portraits just so happened to be enhanced by a substantial amount of marijuana.

Despite being an NFL athlete, Hernandez was known to smoke up to an ounce of weed a week. Tsarnaev’s life as a small-time dealer shades not only his case, but the cases of many of his friends who found themselves facing charges for their poor decisions in wake of the attack.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the two defendants is their behavior throughout the two trials. Hernandez has made a point of laughing with his lawyers, and winking and whispering to his loved ones in the courtroom. Tsarnaev, though he has sat uninterested and unaffected throughout the horrific testimonies of burning flesh and shattered bones, can be found smiling during trial breaks, sharing whispered jokes with his attorneys—just as he did in the moments before his verdict was read. His disposition noticeably darkened as the charges were read.

Details about these two disturbing characters have come out in pieces, making daily headlines. If you’re a resident of Massachusetts, reading the news this past month has been a particularly macabre event.

It’s only going to become creepier in the next few weeks when attorneys delve into the depths of Tsarnaev’s mind and he is tried for his life—and then possibly sentenced to death, himself. A recent poll shows that 62 percent of Boston residents disagree with sentencing Tsarnaev to death. There has not been an execution in Massachusetts since 1947; Tsarnaev, the baby-faced terrorist, may soon break that trend.