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Brother Fights Death Penalty Charges In Marathon Bombing Case


On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. And sitting next to me, our colleague Kelly McEvers, here to host MORNING EDITION this week. Kelly, welcome.


Thanks, David. All this week, people in Boston will mark one year since a bombing at their city's marathon. One of the men allegedly responsible for the attack is still months away from trial. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is fighting charges that could carry the death penalty, in part by saying his deceased older brother was the mastermind.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The two pressure-cooker bombs that detonated on Boylston Street killed three people near the crowded finish line, including an eight-year-old boy. And days later, after authorities released pictures to try to identify the bombers, they allegedly struck again in a violent shoot-out last year in nearby Cambridge and Watertown.

ED DEVEAU: That seemingly quiet overnight shift suddenly turned into a warzone.

JOHNSON: Ed Deveau is the police chief in Watertown. He talked about the experience just the other day.

DEVEAU: For the first time in America, police officers were attacked with guns and bombs, and it happened on a quiet back street in my community. Those two brothers were trying to kill my police officers, and had plans to kill and injure more innocent people.

JOHNSON: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, died after that firefight. That leaves Dzhokhar, now 20 years old, to face justice alone. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz described some of the 30 charges against him in a news conference last June.

CARMEN ORTIZ: The indictment that the grand jury returned today charges the defendant with numerous counts, among them conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death.

JOHNSON: Ortiz and leaders of the Justice Department in Washington are seeking the death penalty in the case. And that presents Tsarnaev's defense team with a big challenge: preparing not just for the guilt or innocence phase of a trial, but also trying to make him sympathetic enough to escape the death penalty in the event a jury convicts.

Gerry Morris is a longtime criminal defense attorney in Texas who's worked on capital cases.

GERRY MORRIS: I think when it comes down to it, what people want to look at, what people on the jury want to look at when they're determining whether to assess the death penalty is: Who should we blame for what happened? Who was primarily responsible?

JOHNSON: Lawyers for Tsarnaev declined to talk in detail about their strategy. But in court papers, they signal they'll blame Tamerlan, a former boxer. They claim Tamerlan dominated the family and instigated the terrorist attack, dragging along his little brother as a, quote, "all-powerful force who could not be ignored or disobeyed."

Emily Schulman, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who now defends clients there, says the strategy for prosecutors is clear.

EMILY SCHULMAN: The government will try to establish that Dzokhar was not simply a kind of passive follower of his brother's, but will try to elicit as many affirmative steps and actions and so forth that Dzohkhar undertook himself.

MCEVERS: Former FBI officials say they have pictures of Dzhokhar as he placed a bomb on the ground near where eight-year-old Martin Richard stood. The boy later died. And the U.S. attorney says a month before the bombings, more clues lead to Dzhokhar. She says he rented two handguns, paid for hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and participated in target practice in New Hampshire with his brother.

JOHNSON: The U.S. attorney also accuses Dzhokhar of downloading al-Qaida bomb-making instructions and of getting a prepaid cellphone a day before the attack. And then, there's the boat. Authorities captured Dzhokhar on the fifth day of their manhunt last year, hiding in a boat where he'd allegedly scratched a message to the world. The message complained the U.S. government was killing innocent civilians overseas and said, quote, "We Muslims are one body. You hurt one, you hurt us all."

Again, Emily Schulman.

SCHULMAN: That undermined any kind of public sense of the younger brother being under the thumb of his older brother.

JOHNSON: And tough words, perhaps, for Tsarnaev to overcome at trial.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.