Tsarnaev’s Dead Eyes Got Him Killed
The surviving member of the pair of Boston Bombers showed little remorse—or any emotion, really—during his trial. It may have earned him the death penalty.
When a 12-panel jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, several of them had tears in their eyes as the clerk read out the sentence. The 21-year old Boston bomber, on the other hand, remained dried eyed and indifferent.
After the sentence was read he crossed his arms, looked down, put his hands in his pockets, rocked from side to side, and then finally looked up with an emotionless blank stare.
It’s a blank stare that may have cost him his life.
Tsarnaev has maintained that same emotionless, nonchalant, unreadable expression through more than two months of horrific testimony from the people he maimed and family members of the young people who’s lives he stole, and image after image of the graphic bone chilling destruction he caused.
The defense only needed one juror to vote against sentencing Tsarnaev to death, and that didn’t happen.
On the verdict form, only two of the 12 jurors wrote that they believed Tsarnaev showed remorse. This after a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who inspired the film Dead Man Walking, testified that after meeting with Tsarnaev earlier this year, he said he was sorry.
“No one deserves to suffer like they did,” she said he told her spontaneously and emphatically.
Clearly, it wasn’t enough. Prejean testified only that he was sorry for the pain his victims suffered, and even then only indirectly. If Tsarnaev told Prejean he was sorry for murdering Krystle Campbell, Lingzu Lu, Martin Richard, or Sean Collier, she didn’t tell the jury that.
Occasionally, when the jury was out of the courtroom, Tsarnaev would smile with his attorneys. Yesterday, right before the jury returned to ask a question about the verdict form, the defendant reportedly laughed.
The only time he reacted in a way that showed he in any way understood the gravity of his predicament was when his aunt took the stand. Patimat Suleimanova, who was flown in from Dagestan, was only able to tell the court her name and the year she was born before breaking down into tears and escorted from the stand.
Maybe there is something about his family oversees that managed to engender in Tsarnaev an emotional response. Another aunt testified that Tsarnaev cried when Simba’s father died in the Lion King.
Former federal prosecutor George Vien says Tsarnaev’s tears may have backfired. Vien says the brief emotional response likely showed the jury two things, “One, he did not have remorse for the victims, and two, he was capable of showing emotion when something bothered him. It was a deadly combination for him.”
The cornerstone of their defense was that Tsarnaev was manipulated, radicalized by his older brother Tamerlan. He was malleable, “coachable” they had his old teachers and coaches testify.
Vien thinks it’s likely that Tsarnaev’s attorneys tried to get the defendant to respond appropriately.
But that defense crumbled today. Only three of the 12 jurors believed that— if not for his older brother—Tsarnaev would not have carried out the attack.
Not only did he appear emotionless to the horrific testimony, he wore dark suits, wrinkled shirts, and by the end of the trial sported a tangled greasy mop of hair that was beginning to turn into a mullet in the back.
Maybe it’s too much to ask a defendant to respond in way that reflects their abominable acts. Veteran defense attorney Robert Sheketoff says it is. “No matter what you do in the courtroom, it can turn against you,” he said. “If you sit there emotionless you can be cold, if you show emotion then you’re faking.”
Sheketoff notes that in Massachusetts state courts the prosecution is banned from noting the defendant’s behavior in closing arguments, “They’ve basically said it’s not a fair inference.”
Perhaps the inference is not entirely fair here, too. Tsarnaev’s crimes are so despicable, the torturous murder of four people, and mutilation of dozens of others, that it would be impossible for him to respond in any way that would be satisfactory to the jury.
It’s likely that for the defense, this case was, as Sheketoff argues, “checkmate from the very beginning.” It’s the first capital loss for Tsarnaev attorney, Judy Clarke, a famed lawyer who saved the lives of notorious clients Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, Eric Rudolph (the Olympic bomber), and Jared Lee Loughner, who murdered 19 people in Arizona in a 2011 shooting.
Clarke had very little to work with in Tsarnaev’s defense. Without managing to secure a plea deal to save his life, his lawyers tried to built an argument that his late older brother was the driving force behind the attack, but with out extensive evidence about the nature of the brother's relationship, for the most part they had to call witnesses to testify that he was well liked.
The scary part is that Tsarnaev was.
A day after the bombing he tweeted, “I’m a stress free kind of guy.” Indeed, that’s what his friends enjoyed about him. The Boston Marathon bomber was at once not only easy going, but handsome and adored.
Twenty minutes after the bombing he walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a gallon of milk as nonchalantly as he's been walking into the courtroom everyday.
His face reveled nothing. It never has.
His high school and college friends who met with him weeks before the bombing never suspected a thing. Neither, it seems, did his friends who met with him in the days after the attack. Dias Kadyrbaeyev, Azamat Tazhayokov, and Robel Phillipos are all facing charges for the actions they took after Tsarnaev’s image was released to the pubic.
What once made him so popular is precisely what makes him so terrifying today.
This evening, after the verdict was released I spoke to one of Tsarnaev’s childhood friends, a young man I’ll call Paul. I caught him, “fresh off a blunt,” he explained. It was eerie. Just a few years ago, he was smoking blunts with Tsarnaev, a devoted stoner and sometime weed dealer.
He grew up with the bomber, they went to both elementary school and high school together in Cambridge, and they used to hang out by the shores of the Charles River together.
The first thing Paul asked when I got on the phone was about the appeals process.
Yes, Tsarnaev’s attorneys will almost certainly appeal, I told him. Even if his appeals are not ultimately granted, the path to execution will likely take a decade for Tsarnaev, if not more. As it stands, there is a federal moratorium on the death penalty over questions surrounding the dicey drugs used in lethal injections.
This is the reason why Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of 8-year-old Martin, wrote a public letter in the Boston Globe asking for the government to spare Tsarnaev’s life. They don’t want to go through the long process of appeals. They want to put this case to rest.
Other victims, parents like William Campbell, whose daughter Krystle was killed, welcomed the sentencing today. “I think the system worked and the jury did their job,” he told the Boston Globe. “I hope this decision will be a deterrent, to keep our young kids from going over to join ISIS, because they’ll know they’re going to pay for it.”
Paul wasn’t sure if the news about the appeals was comforting or not, “I guess its good that he’ll be able to appeal it, but the thing is, I don’t really care. I’m so over it at this point.”
He, like many of his friends—some of whom testified for the defense—are conflicted and deeply disturbed. “I’m just trying finding ways to block it out without getting stressed about it,” he said.
The Tsarnaev in the courtroom, laid back and indifferent, is behaving very much like the Tsarnaev he once knew. “He was always a very relaxed person. He never showed anxiousness.”
“He probably just knows and feels that the world is against him right now,” reflected Paul. “He doesn’t really want to give people the satisfaction of begging for mercy.”
Paul says he and his friends are mourning more than just the victims, but of a kind innocence and pride about growing up in Cambridge, a city often hailed both lovingly and mockingly as “The People’s Republic.”
Asked if he feels sympathy for Tsarnaev, Paul told me: “I feel sympathy for the person that I knew and not for the person that he is now.”
One question this case certainly has not answered, who was that person anyways?