Was Tsarnaev’s Apology Part of a Strategy to Keep Him Alive?

Was the Boston bomber’s apology part of a last-second appeals trick to keep him off death row? Legal experts are split.

More than two years after he and his brother planted two bombs on the Boston marathon finish line, and following a months-long trial that sentenced him to death, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev broke his silence for the first time—to apologize.

“I am sorry for the lives I have taken, for the suffering I have caused you, and the damage I have done. Irreparable damage,” he said, wearing a dark suit and a shirt with a wrinkled collar.

The 21-year-old Boston Marathon bomber was officially sentenced to death by Judge George O’Toole today, after a jury reached the decision to have him executed last month. On Wednesday, victims were allotted time to give victim impact statements to the court.

Tsarnaev was given the opportunity to speak, as well. Surprising many, he finally took it.

But will his last minute apology save his life?

Former federal judge Nancy Gertner says maybe.

“He couldn’t make it worse. He could only make it better,” says Gertner, a professor at Harvard Law School. “The defense really has to humanize Tsarnaev at every turn.”

And there may still be turns in this case. Even though this trial is over, Tsarnaev’s attorneys still have the right to appeal. In federal death penalty cases, this can take decades.

Legal experts predict Tsarnaev’s lawyers will appeal the case on the grounds that Tsarnaev couldn’t get a fair trial in the city he once bombed. But Gertner says they may be able to appeal if they can prove important mitigating evidence was withheld from the jury.

“The more we know of him—even in this little smidgen that’s evidence that the judge excluded, or evidence that they might not have been able to develop because of national security implications—would make a difference.”

Essentially, his lawyers could argue that they couldn’t show Tsarnaev was remorseful because Judge O’Toole wouldn’t let them.

With so many of the court documents in this trial still sealed, it’s hard to predict if that argument could sway an appeals court in the future.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

But veteran defense attorney Robert Sheketoff says it’s more likely Tsarnaev spoke today because he actually felt remorse.

“It doesn’t really change the calculus for the appeal,” said Sheketoff. “So it must be something that he wanted to say.”

Sheketoff thinks Tsarnaev most likely spoke because he wanted to.

“I [see] it as something he felt compelled to say,” says Sheketoff , who defended Gary Lee Sampson in another death penalty trial at Boston’s federal courthouse. “I wouldn’t think it’s some sort of scam or trick because I don’t think there is a significant advantage for him of any kind.”

Despite all appearances, perhaps Tsarnaev’s show of remorse was a sincere one, even if it came over two years too late for the three people he killed with a pressure cooker bomb at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

This runs counter to Tsarnaev’s notorious nonchalant attitude, which had become a talking point after the attack and throughout the trial. He was seen buying milk less than half an hour after the bombings. After the attack, he hung out with his friends and went to a party and the gym before a shootout in Watertown, Mass. left him shot and his brother dead.

Despite gut wrenching testimonies from his victims, Tsarnaev sat through the trial slouched in his chair beneath a tangle of greasy hair, emotionless.

“Why didn’t anyone who sat here for this last trial see any remorse?” asked Karen McWatters, a friend of bombing victim Krystle Campbell.

Tsarnaev said that despite his seemingly indifferent demeanor, the gravity of his actions became clear to him “immediately” after the explosion when he started to learn more about the lives he had taken.

“I pray for your relief, for your healing, for your well-being, for your strength,” he told victims.

He spoke softly and solemnly with a thick accent. According to a high school friend, the accent is new. Tsarnaev immigrated to the United States when he was five years old.

Throughout the trial, the horror of what he committed further sank in, he said. “More of those victims were given faces. And they had hearts and souls,” he said.

But some of the survivors who spoke to reporters outside the courtroom after Tsarnaev spoke weren’t buying Tsarnaev’s apology.

“I find that hard to believe since I’ve come to a lot of the trial and never really saw that at all from him. It really does not change anything for me. I think he spoke because people were sort of expecting that of him. I don’t think he was genuine,” said Scott Weisberg, who survived the attack.

“There was nothing simple that he said and nothing sincere,” survivor Lynn Julian told reporters.

Sincere or not, why the two Tsarnaevs chose to detonate two bombs on Boylston Street in April of 2013 is still unclear.

During the trial his attorney Judy Clarke warned jurors that the defense team may never be able to answer this question. And in his brief statement today, Tsarnaev did not address the issue at all.

Instead, he made frequent references to God, but did not explain if his understanding of religion had changed. Nor did he condemn terrorism.

“I would like to begin with Allah,” he told the court, starting his six minute prepared speech in which he made frequent references and calls to Allah.

“This is the most blessed month of Ramadan, the month of mercy.”

At one point, Tsarnaev seemed almost light-hearted when he told the court—“if there’s any lingering” doubt—that he did, in fact, bomb the Boston Marathon.

Some conspiracy theorists, as well as some of his family members, had believed Tsarnaev was framed.

Tsarnaev thanked his attorneys, those who testified on his behalf, and—perhaps surprisingly—the jury who sentenced him to death.

While some of the victims today said they are glad the jury decided to sentence him to death, others said they would rather Tsarnaev stay in a cell by himself.

Jenn Roger, the step-sister of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier, detailed the pain Tsarnaev caused her.

“He ran his brother over with a car,” she said. “No wonder he had no issue shooting mine in the head.”

“He chose hate, he chose destruction, he chose death,” said Bill Richard, standing by his wife, Denise, whose 8-year-old son was killed in the attack. “This is all on him. We chose love.”