The verdict is in: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will die by lethal injection. At twenty-one, he will become the youngest person on death row, sentenced in a state without the death penalty. Even among those directly affected by the Boston Marathon Bombing, there isn’t so much a sense of victory as one of unease. In a city where only twelve percent of the population favored the death penalty for him, people have begun to ask themselves: is this really the kind of justice we want to stand for?
Part One: What I Saw
When it comes to where someone stands on this issue, I admit to being so far away from even the regular spectrum of opinion I am practically in the weeds. As I wrote about in a previous post, I have followed Dzhokhar’s case since the day he was identified as a suspect. I tried to return a presumption of innocence to him as I pieced together the evidence and testimony revealed at trial. Finally, frustrated with relying on second-hand courtroom accounts from the media, I started to appear at the courthouse so I could see everything for myself. In addition to an afternoon session during the government’s argument of aggravating factors during the penalty phase, I sat in on the entirety of the defense’s subsequent case, start to finish. I was primarily in the courtroom, but I spent a little time in the public overflow room as well. Both were, needless to say, extremely eye-opening experiences. And there was something that became clear to me very early on, sitting on the hard wooden bench, the revelation hitting me like a jolt:
None of this is fair.
At this point, with a few days to get used to the idea, I don’t know why I was ever shocked the jury came to the verdict they did. The odds were stacked against Dzhokhar from the start and nothing the defense could do could turn the tide in his favor. My father even warned me, “The way things are going, don’t be surprised if they give him the death sentence.” He practiced criminal defense for many years, and over the course of our discussions of this case, he’s ticked off grounds after grounds for appeal. Still, I tried to hold out hope, despite the uneasy feeling that has pervaded since the start of the trial. I thought the mitigating factors were strong, and the jury, although I feared their bias, would have to be swayed by the very same things that swayed me while inside the very same courtroom. There would be years of appeals regardless of the decision, my father assured me, so egregious were the legal errors present in the case.
Of course, while my father is an attorney and focuses on the legality of the issue, at heart I am an artist, so I looked for the humanity. While I was there, I studied Dzhokhar like my own life depended on it, trying to commit everything to memory, knowing I was unlikely to ever set eyes on him again. As the trial roared around us, I paid as much attention to him as I did to the proceedings, to get a sense of the life that was at stake.
What exactly can I say about him? I have a collection of small details, some that may be significant and others not so much. I saw a kid who looked like he belonged in one of my college classes, not at the defense table in one of the biggest terrorism trials in American history. His nose is larger than pictures would have you believe. I noticed signs of nerve damage in his jaw, remnants of a bullet that probably would have killed him had it hit an inch or so higher, causing one side of his mouth to droop so that at rest his face has the look of a perpetual scowl. (Given that this was the side of him facing the jury, I can only imagine what that might have done to endear him to them.) His hair is a little longer than in the photos before his capture, and curled against his collar in a way that must have irritated his neck, because he was often brushing it aside. In the mornings, he would pour his attorney Judy Clarke coffee before he poured it for himself. I don’t know what they talked about, but he seemed to be able to make Judy Clarke and Miriam Conrad genuinely smile and laugh. I saw him sniffle and wipe his eyes and nose when his elderly aunt, here from Dagestan to testify on his behalf, broke down on the stand and sobbed for so long she had to be excused. I saw him blow a reassuring kiss to a weepy cousin, beam at another aunt with such shining adoration it made me ache. And once, for a split second, he and I looked at each other. I don’t know what made him do it, because he never looked at the gallery in my presence before or since. But that particular day, as the federal marshals were bringing him out, he scanned the crowd, and our eyes met.
I wish I could say something significant happened. By certain accounts, you’d think I would have seen his irises glow a demonic red. But no, they stayed dark and opaque, and he didn’t linger because there was nothing separating me from a sea of other strangers there to rubberneck at his condemnation. I don’t know if he was looking for someone specific, but if he was, he didn’t seem to find them. Really, the only thing I can take away from this moment is that now I have looked into the eyes of someone sentenced to die for his crimes. I did not see evil, madness or malice, but I didn’t see much of anything else, either. Then again, when you are in the eye of a shitstorm so massive as this, I can only imagine you have to shut down emotionally cope with the everyday moments. It’s all you can do to weather it with some semblance of grace: sit there in silent obedience as every square inch of your life is magnified and put on display, express your gratitude to the people fighting to save you from death by pouring them coffee, and try not to let the vultures see you cry.
Part Two: The Evidence
I know the worth of a person can’t be measured entirely in details. Human life is much more complex than that. This is what the defense tried to get across to the jury during the penalty phase. This is also what convinced me that something was so fundamentally wrong in the handling of the case that we were getting nothing close to the true story.
As the defense called witness after witness to testify about Tamerlan versus Dzhokhar, a clear pattern emerged. Tamerlan was always hot-headed and arrogant, strong, powerful and bigger than his younger brother, who was born premature and had a prevailing smallness to his stature growing up. Tamerlan had a short temper and a pushy nature, and sometime around 2009 onward, he had developed an unmoderated obsession with Islam, fueled by the Internet and a friend who was a recent convert himself. Tamerlan tried to push Islam on everyone he met, including casual acquaintances and his own mother-in-law, who testified that he was difficult to get along with and she was constantly resisting being drawn into religious and political discussions with him. He was emotionally and physically abusive toward his girlfriend, Katherine Russell, who then became his wife. She converted to Islam to please him, began covering herself and acting like a very traditional Muslim wife, even though several family members testified that this was never the way they were taught to practice their religion.
The family members testified that they were afraid of the change in Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidat when they came to visit, because it was so out of character for them, and reminded them of the Islamic radicals still rampant in the region. One cousin was so alarmed she didn’t want her son meeting Tamerlan when he was there. And, as revealed by FBI 302s when Tamerlan visited Dagestan in January to July 2012, a cousin said he was loud and open about wanting to “go into the forest,” the euphemism for joining the rebels in the mountainous woods outside the city. The cousin cautioned him, “The way you’re going, you won’t make it past the next tree.” It took awhile and the assistance of other family members, but finally Tamerlan said, “You have convinced my head, but my heart still wants to do something.” In an audio file found on his computer, he and three other unidentified males discussed Islam and the establishment of a Caliphate. Tamerlan admitted to feeling “this rage of hatred inside of me.”
Tamerlan’s computer proved to be a hotbed of other radical materials, too. In files encrypted by a program suggested by jihadist propaganda Inspire Magazine, he had a cache of jihadi motivational videos, selfies of himself in Islamic garb and a gun, pictures of himself and his toddler daughter with guns, photos saved from the internet of little babies in hijab and, by far the most disturbing to me, a large number of pictures of dead civilians from war-torn regions. His own desktop background on his laptop was a tiled picture of a slaughtered woman and children, accompanied by a stickie note of Koran quotes.
Dzhokhar, in stark contrast, was only ever described as sweet, smart, hardworking, eager to please. From elementary school all the way through high school teachers took the stand to sing his praises, greeting him at the defense table with sad, fond smiles. They called him an exceptional student, a joy to have in the class, eager to participate, easy to get along with, never fell in with a clique or fought with anyone. Friends from high school and college were called in and said much the same. They described him as supportive, loyal, funny, goofy. He never discussed religion or politics, never tried to push his point of view on anyone. At the end of each testimony, the defense asked these character witnesses, “What was your reaction when you learned Dzhokhar was involved in the Boston Marathon Bombing?”
The prosecution, invariably, jumped up. “Objection.” The judge sustained, but the answer was obvious: I never thought it could be him, not in a million years.
The defense figured out a workaround, however. They began asking the question worded slightly differently: “Was the Dzhokhar you knew consistent with the Dzhokhar who committed the bombing?” The prosecution would object, but the judge would allow it. And again, the answer was always an emphatic “no.” So firm where these answers, I got the distinct sense that not only did these witnesses believe it at the time, but still they still believed it now, even with Dzhokhar ten feet away from them seated at counsel table, thirty convictions deep.
Alexa Gueverra, a high school and college friend, described the last time she had seen Dzhokhar, about a month before the bombing. She talked about a night of driving around Cambridge, getting food “because the boys were starving,” and setting off fireworks at the Charles River. She talked about Dzhokhar jumping through the sparks and how silly it was. She started to cry openly on the stand, and when Miriam Conrad asked about her reaction to finding out about Dzhokhar’s involvement in the bombing, the question was quickly objected to and sustained. Conrad took a moment to confer with Judy Clarke, returned to the podium, and asked gently, “Why are you crying?”
The prosecution attorney leapt to his feet. “Objection.” This time, for whatever reason, the judge overruled.
There was a long, pained silence. Then Alexa said, her voice as high as a wail, “I really miss the person I used to know.”
Court recessed for the day, and Alexa rushed from the stand, down the aisle and past where I was sitting. Her sobs echoed in the hall as the door slammed shut. And I walked as calmly as I could to the bathroom, where I locked myself in a stall and cried in the face of a stark truth I could feel in the air but no one dared name. It was only the first week of the defense, but I knew. No one saw this coming from Dzhokhar because there was absolutely no way he’d been willingly involved in the crimes he had committed. There was simply no evidence, and there would be no evidence, because it wasn’t true.
Part Three: The Radicalization of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev… or Lack Thereof
It’s time to back up, before the penalty phase, back to the guilt phase, when the defense should have been allowed to bring much of this evidence but was blocked. The first day of testimony, Judge George O’Toole ruled that the defense could not mention Tamerlan and should focus on what the defendant did only. Although I wasn’t there for this portion of the trial, reports said this threw the defense for a visible loop. The few times they did try to bring up Tamerlan, they were vigorously objected to by the prosecution and firmly sustained by the judge.
This, I believe, was the nail in the coffin of a defense that was already sputtering and dying due to its denial of a venue change. Because, as the evidence presented in the penalty phase shows, there is no case without Tamerlan. Not only that, but even though the defense was barred from mentioning Tamerlan, the prosecution was then allowed to use him indiscriminately to convict Dzhokhar. The bombs were built by Tamerlan (no fingerprint evidence on the bombs or the materials to make them matched anyone but him), Sean Collier was killed by Tamerlan (fingerprints on the gun magazine matched Tamerlan and was always in his possession for the rest of the night), Dun Meng was carjacked by Tamerlan, the shootout with Watertown police was initiated by Tamerlan. Dzhokhar was convicted for all of these crimes due to the nature of the charges against him – conspiracy and aiding and abetting. These charges basically mean that he did not need to know the full extent of the crimes, but that he aided to help them happen with substantial involvement and planning. But I never saw anything to indicate that he was involved substantially with the planning of the plot at all. Yes, he obtained a gun around February 2013 from a friend and it somehow ended up with Tamerlan by March. But there’s nothing to explain how the gun changed hands or why. Did he get the gun to impress his brother and Tamerlan took it from him? Did he borrow it just to have it and Tamerlan found it? Did he get it to protect himself from Tamerlan? Furthermore, the only other indication that he helped further the bombing plot was the T-Mobile burner phone opened in a variation of his name “Jahar Tsarni” the day before. However, there was no surveillance footage or witness to confirm Dzhokhar was the one to open the account, and the exhibit shows the only information entered were his name and birthdate, both pieces of information Tamerlan undoubtedly knew as his brother. Also, Tamerlan’s account was opened about nine months earlier, and there was a refill made on both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s disposable phones that day. This suggests that Tamerlan might have been the one to make this purchase as well, perhaps while he was out alone shopping for backpacks.
My point is that if the prosecution also removed Tamerlan from the equation, they wouldn’t have much of a case either. We would have a kid with a backpack at the Marathon but no idea how he got it or what might be inside. As for the actual crimes he committed during the escape attempt, there would be the eight hundred dollars he stole from Dun Meng, and the assault on the police officers in Watertown during a shootout not of his own making, none of which, my father has pointed out, are capital crimes. Interestingly, however, in order to counter the defense’s claim that Dzhokhar acted under the influence and direction of Tamerlan, they did assert that Tamerlan did not facilitate Dzhokhar’s radicalization, that Dzhokhar took it upon himself to “self-radicalize” and embrace the deadly ideals of radical Islam.
This is one area of the trial that I felt was underexplored, which is a shame because it involves the main motive for the crimes. The psychology of radicalization is a fascinating but still developing field. Regardless, I would have loved to see some expert witnesses discussing the radicalization trajectories present in the two brothers – or, what I believe to be more accurate, how radicalization was present in Tamerlan but absent in Dzhokhar. And if the defense could have proven that Dzhokhar was not truly radicalized, that would have broken down the government’s case entirely.
Okay, time to get a little academic and define “radicalization.” I’ve started to throw around a word that gets a lot of play in discussions of terrorism but is rarely clearly defined or used correctly. According to Doctors Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko in their book Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, “Radicalization is the development of beliefs, feelings, and actions in support of any group or cause in conflict… Radicalization is not something that happens only to others – the mentally ill person or the evil character. It is a psychological trajectory that, given the right circumstances, can happen to any person, group or nation. The trajectory is not right or wrong: it is amoral in the sense that radicalization can occur for causes both good and bad”(4). That is an important nuance to note: radicalization does not only happen to terrorists. It can – and does – happen to all of us, for all sorts of reasons and on all sides of conflicts. Terrorists might be radicalized against America, but America, for its part, has become just as radicalized against the perceived threat of terrorism. McCauley and Moskalenko note, “This transition took place in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Americans embraced the unthinkable in search of retribution and security. We were radicalized: our feelings, beliefs and behaviors all moved toward increased support for violence against perceived enemies, including sometimes Arab and Muslim Americans. We idealized American values, gave increased power to American leaders, and became more ready to punish anyone seen as challenging patriotic norms”(4).
With this in mind, let’s turn back to the government’s claim that Dzhokhar “self-radicalized.” First, I would like to point out that McCauley and Moskalenko never identify this as an actual phenomenon. I believe this is just another buzzword created by the media who don’t know what they’re talking about. Because as explained in the previous paragraph, radicalization does not happen in a void. There are always factors that push someone along this trajectory, regardless of whether they are real or imagined. Identified in the book as “mechanisms” to radicalization, there are six of them that happen on an individual level, and they can happen in any order and in any frequency. I’ll get into these in a bit, but for now, back to the prosecution’s case.
So not only did the government assert that Dzhokhar needed no push to radicalization, going against the main definition of the psychology involved, but their only proof of this came in very questionable form. They showed that he did have jihadi propaganda materials present on his laptop, but the defense later indicated they were dumped there by Tamerlan. I myself wondered how much of it Dzhokhar actually read – PDFs, to my knowledge, have no way to record how many times they are opened and perused. And, given the amount of utter trash pervading my own hard drive, I wondered how anyone could prove he didn’t just thank Tamerlan for the reading material and promptly forget about it. This also happened with the few Islamic nasheeds found on Dzhokhar’s computer (falsely identified by the prosecution as “terrorist songs,” but that’s a can of worms for another day), where the assertion became that simply listening to these chants, which on their own are pretty much the equivalent of gospel hymns, Dzhokhar became ready and willing to commit violence in the name of Islam.
There is something inherently flawed in claiming that reading material and music is enough to make a person commit a crime. It’s oddly reminiscent of the scare about goth music and video games after the Columbine shootings, but these days, since the perceived threat is terrorism, the otherwise innocuous items become anything vaguely Muslim. This is complicated by the fact that there is a violent, dangerous movement that has hijacked supposed Muslim values to twist to their own ends. Through unfamiliarity and fear, however, it makes the untrained eye unable to distinguish between something that any Muslim in the world might know or say and what a jihadist might know or say. In this case, the government took the former and tried to turn it into the latter. For instance, take a look at some of Dzhokhar’s tweets that the prosecution entered into evidence:
I was baffled by the admission of many of the tweets, but in particular these, because to me they seem to be actively working against the prosecution’s case. I’m not a huge expert on Islam, but I have studied it in school and independently in addition to knowing a number of Muslims myself, so I think I can at least identify standard patterns in the religion. Salat are the daily prayers that any Muslim would know, and the second tweet refers to fasting during Ramadan, the most important month of the Islamic calendar. Participating in Ramadan certainly doesn’t make you a radical. And the final one not only states that Dzhokhar does not support the supposed link between Islam and terrorism – and jihadist rhetoric argues that it is a “true” Muslim’s duty to commit violence for the religion – but the timestamp indicates he says so a mere four months before the bombing. While I once, perhaps like many others, viewed this statement as some eerie sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, with the trial at an end and the prosecution unable to dig up much more than what I’ve laid in front of you, I’ve begun to reconsider. Tamerlan’s radicalization path started around 2009 – a full four years before the bombing. Meanwhile, the prosecution suggested Dzhokhar was involved with the purchasing of the bomb materials (despite cell data putting him nowhere near the scene) as early as January 31, 2013. That’s only two weeks to independently change his mind, which makes no sense without some monumental incentive, and the prosecution certainly wasn’t able to produce any.
The government did offer one explanation, however. Inspire Magazine apparently warns would-be jihadists to try to blend with regular Western society, to try not to stand out and tip off anyone about the secret plots they’re hatching. This, the prosecution claimed, was what Dzhokhar did: hid his long-term radicalization and violent ideals so well for years that absolutely no one in his life ever had any indication about his dual Muslim extremist identity. To this, I can only offer a tired laugh, because it’s so convenient, isn’t it? If there’s no evidence to prove any of these claims, it’s only because Dzhokhar was just that good at hiding them. This theory doesn’t seem to hold much weight with those who knew him either, for the record. Dzhokhar’s high school math teacher, Eric Traub, took the stand and lauded the qualities of the young man I had come to expect – friendly, diligent, skilled in math, often made it a contest to see who could answer equations fastest, getting the other students engaged. Traub wrote Dzhokhar a recommendation letter for college in 2010 and read it to the court. Miriam Conrad asked him, “Were you sincere in how you described Dzhokhar then?”
Traub answered, “Yes, I was.”
“Do you still believe these words to be true today?”
“Yes, I do.”
Conrad asked him about his reaction to the bombing, and Traub said that he thought when Dzhokhar was identified as a suspect there had to be some mistake. Then, although the prosecution was objecting left and right to similarly themed questions, Conrad snuck in, “Do you think Dzhokhar had you fooled in high school?”
“Objection!” the prosecution cried, the lawyer flying out of his seat.
There was a pause, but before the judge could make a ruling, Traub cut in, directly and with an air of defiance: “No, I don’t.”
The prosecution attorney sat down. “Withdrawn,” he said, with a defeated sigh.
I’ll probably never meet Mr. Traub in person, but I will admire him for making that statement for the rest of my life.
With all this in mind, I would like to return to the six mechanisms of radicalization as defined by McCauley and Moskalenko, and see how many apply to both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.
Mechanisms of Radicalization Present in Tamerlan Tsarnaev
Personal Grievance (“Harm to self or loved ones can move individuals to hostility and violence toward perpetrators”) – Yes. Tamerlan experienced a series of personal failures, including in music and especially boxing, when he was unable to move to the nationals for not being a US citizen. He was also of Chechen and Dagestani descent, people who have a long history of experiencing persecution and violence at the hand of the Russian government. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s father suffers long term from PTSD as a result of this conflict.
Group Grievance (“Threat or harm to a group or cause the individual cares about can move the individual to hostility and violence toward perpetrators.”) – Yes. It is by now well-documented that Tamerlan took a sharp turn to Islam and felt especially angered about the violence toward Muslims in Syria and other Middle-Eastern countries.
Slippery Slope (“Small involvements in political conflict can create new forces moving an individual toward radicalization.”) – Likely. Tamerlan certainly searched for involvement in groups in Dagestan, even though he didn’t ultimately join them. Also, a key element to the slippery slope mechanism is that each step toward violence provides motivation to keep moving forward. Since Tamerlan is the one who assembled the bombs, it can be said that this slippery slope was present for him once the plot began.
Love (“Love for someone already radicalized can move an individual toward radicalization.”) – Yes. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s mother Zubeidat also became very religious and encouraged Tamerlan to follow.
Risk and Status (“The attractions of risk-taking and status can move individuals, especially young males, to radical political action.”) – Yes. Tamerlan certainly had a thirst for recognition and glory, given his aspirations to be an Olympic boxer. He also seemed enamored with the aesthetic of a jihadist, given his photoshoots.
Unfreezing (“Loss of social connection can open an individual to new ideas and new identity that may include political radicalization.”) – Yes. Tamerlan’s volatile nature and pushiness about Islam alienated him from existing friends, and even in Dagestan his demeanor seemed too “American” to allow him to fit in well. In addition, a cousin told the FBI in a 302 that Tamerlan had joined a locked group on a Russian social media site, which made the cousin uneasy because he couldn’t figure out who Tamerlan was in there with and why it needed to be locked.
Mechanisms of Radicalization Present in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Personal Grievance – Maybe. Dzhokhar did list the conflict in Chechnya affecting his family members to be the reason his grades were failing at UMass Dartmouth. But it should be noted that given the Tsarnaevs’ cultural background, there is unlikely to be anyone from their ethnicity whose family or friends have not experienced persecution. Unlike Tamerlan, Dzhokhar did not ever speak out about it in anger to anyone.
Group Grievance – Maybe. With Dzhokhar being from both a cultural background with a long history of oppression and a faith that especially in recent years has been vilified in the United States, I would honestly be surprised if he didn’t have some strong feelings about it. But the only statement that made it into court – that he told his friend Steven Silva that he thought America meddled too much in Muslim countries – isn’t so much a radical opinion as an observation of fact that could be made by anyone who isn’t blind.
Slippery Slope – No. Dzhokhar had no prior history of political activism or violence, which is what made his involvement in the bombing so shocking to everyone who knew him.
Love – Yes(?). The defense banked their entire case on this, in fact. Tamerlan was certainly radicalized and so was their mother. However, what earns it a question mark in my mind is that although the trajectory of both Zubeidat and Tamerlan are so strong and persisted for a number of years, Dzhokhar never at any point seemed to follow suit – before the bombing, anyway. There was no testimony that Zubeidat encouraged Dzhokhar to be more religious the way she encouraged Tamerlan. The only evidence presented that showed correspondence between the two brothers were a sparse number of emails, mostly over the time when Tamerlan was in Russia in 2012. These were not actual conversations, but rather usually links from Tamerlan without commentary sent to his wife, Dzhokhar, and sometimes an unidentified third party. They were usually articles or videos with a jihadi bent. Dzhokhar, however, showed no engagement with the material. Once he thanked Tamerlan for the link and spent the rest of the email lamenting being unable to get in touch with him by phone. Another time he agreed that it was important to spread Islam, but this did not elicit a response from Tamerlan either. Finally, the only link Dzhokhar sent back to Tamerlan was analyzed by a specialist on both the North Caucasus and Islam, and he reported that not only was the site was a moderate government sponsored site in Russia, but that the link itself contained a story from a Muslim mystic who is universally reviled by jihadists because it flies in the face of their violent ideology. In other words, Dzhokhar was offering a different point of view that countered the nonsense that Tamerlan was trying to feed him. The rest of the emails were about cars.
I believe beyond a doubt that Dzhokhar loved his brother. But I also think he was smart enough to recognize Tamerlan’s failings and avoided involvement with his crazy ideas… at least for as long as he could.
Risk and Status – No. Dzhokhar never exhibited or expressed desire for glory, fame or power. His risk-taking behavior – smoking, drinking underage, smoking and selling marijuana – are typical for his age. You would be hard pressed to find someone in this peer group who didn’t engage in at least one of these activities, even a goody two shoes like me. (It should also be noted that in 2012 medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts by an almost unanimous vote, and a vote to legalize it completely is planned for the 2016 ballot, so lax is our attitude toward it. Smoking and selling pot as a sign of bad character is a really thin argument around here.)
Unfreezing – No. Dzhokhar was not socially isolated prior to the bombing, nor did he make any dramatic changes in who he hung out with, seem to spend a surprising amount of time with Tamerlan, or engage in any radical discussions online. The prosecution made a big deal about his “secret Muslim Twitter account,” but he only posted eight times over 48 hours and simply mentioned prayer and that certain sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki – who was an al-Qaeda affiliated scholar, but whose sermons were not all extremist in nature – were enlightening. I don’t consider this definitive proof of anything except, perhaps, that a young Muslim was trying to figure out his faith and where he stood on it. After two days, he seemed to lose interest. Besides, he followed it with his main Twitter account, so if he was striving to be sneaky about it, he wasn’t trying very hard.
I will admit that even the experts can’t clearly determine which of these six mechanisms is more likely to show up in a single person, or how exactly they all combine together to move an individual to violence. However, McCauley and Moskalenko state, “We do not expect that any one mechanism is necessary for radicalization to occur, and only in rare cases – perhaps group grievance for lone wolf terrorists – is one mechanism sufficient for radicalization“(214, emphasis mine). So what they are saying is that not only are none of the mechanisms specifically needed for radicalization, but it is very unlikely that only one is enough to fuel violent acts. The threshold to push someone over the edge generally has to be higher than that. If we look back to the breakdown of mechanisms present in Dzhokhar, the only “yes” is love, and even then I had certain caveats. Despite the note by McCauley and Moskalenko that group grievance might be enough for lone wolf terrorists, my reservations about this in Dzhokhar’s case still apply. So if all we have is love, and love isn’t enough to explain Dzhokhar’s actions, then we are faced with a dilemma – because he definitely still committed the bombing. But I think we can safely rule out political radicalization as the motivating factor.
So what are we left with? Well, there is the possibility that he might have been mentally ill. This can be easily eliminated, however, by the heaps of testimony that he was well-adjusted and well-liked. If being secretly radicalized is difficult for an adolescent to hide, even more so is a psychological disorder. Then we have what I wondered about from the start, and the nagging suspicion returned as I sat through the defense portion of the trial – as I heard more and more about Tamerlan, about his size and strength, his ability to intimidate people and push them around, and the evidence that not only could he hurt a loved one in anger, but that she would then cover it up for him. In fact, the answer seemed so obvious to me by the end, I could taste it in the courtroom, even though the defense didn’t dare say it.
Then, in their rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments, the prosecution went right ahead and said it anyway: “The defendant would have you believe that ‘my brother made me do it.'”
Yes, actually. I absolutely believe that he did.
Part Four: What Went Wrong
I have laid out my own case to the best of my ability. I do not necessarily think you will believe my alternate version, but I hope you can at least see where I’m coming from when I say that Dzhokhar was tried, convicted and sentenced to death based on a version of events that is simply not accurate.
The question now becomes how was this allowed to happen? And, if I am right about the possibility that Dzhokhar was acting under duress and fear, why didn’t his counsel team bring that defense, instead of dancing around it and using words like “influence” and “admiration” of his brother?
The answer goes back right to the source, well before the trial even started: Boston. Dzhokhar’s trial should never have been allowed to remain in this city. The jury pool is so inherently tainted, due not only to the crimes in question – which targeted a widely known, highly televised event – but that the entire city was forced into lockdown on April 19, 2013 while the authorities searched for Dzhokhar. At that time, we were told not only that he was already guilty, but he posed such a large scale threat we needed to stay inside our homes. And, since I experienced it myself, I can tell you that the only thing to do that day was sit there and watch the news about him. The idea that there could be anyone in the city who wouldn’t have been personally affected by – or known someone who was personally affected by – either the Marathon itself or the subsequent city lockdown is rather preposterous.
Additionally, there was the question of finding a “death-qualified jury,” that is, a certain number of people willing to impose the death penalty in a state without the death penalty. In a really enlightening roundtable discussion at Democracy Now! a couple of days ago, host Amy Goodman spoke to the ACLU’s Denny LeBoeuf, who has had 26 years’ experience as a capital defense attorney. LeBoeuf explained the inherent unfairness of finding a death-qualified jury in Massachusetts, where 85% of the population oppose the death penalty:
You have to ask the jury, “Can you consider a death sentence?” And they’re told, “Don’t tell us how you’re going to vote, but tell us that you can seriously make a death penalty a possibility if at the end of this process you’ve convicted him of a death-eligible offense.” And having picked some death-qualified juries in a very Catholic city, New Orleans, you watch as you lose a lot of Catholics, most of your African-American and other people of color—you lose all the people who, even for non-religious reasons, don’t have a strong sense that the authorities, that the government, is always right and always tells the truth and always gives you the straight angle on what’s going on and what the facts are. And you’re instead picking a jury from a very small, unrepresentative, very conservative, conviction-prone pool. And it’s the central unfairness of this process that couldn’t be more dramatic in this case.
This didn’t surprise me, as my first impression of Dzhokhar’s jury was that they all looked white, old, and angry. Even after three weeks of sitting in the courtroom, that impression didn’t change much. In total, I counted two people who could have been under thirty, another three or four who could have been under forty, and only one person who could have been a person of color – or perhaps just a Greek or Italian with a tan. This group included the six alternates, and I wasn’t present when the twelve adjourned to the jury room, so I can’t even say which of these made it to the deliberations.
I’ve talked at length with my father about this case and the defense Dzhokhar’s team could bring. It was my dad, in fact, who first suggested the duress defense, only days after Dzhokhar’s capture, when I too was still with everyone else in thinking he must be guilty. We’ve also talked a lot since about what the defense chose to do instead and why. I’m going to have to bow to my father’s words on this, since he was the criminal defense attorney, not me, but I can summarize them to the best of my ability. He believes – and I agree – that the defense team would have loved to bring the duress defense, but given the unprecedented resistance they were faced with in the denial of a venue change and the inevitability they would face a tainted jury pool, they had to abandon that strategy, knowing no jury would ever believe it. Instead, they were forced to assume he’d already been convicted and focus on saving his life. This materially altered their strategy and accounts for the almost non-existent case they brought during the guilt phase, aggravated even more by the ruling that Tamerlan could not be mentioned. As a result, their entire end game became saving Dzhokhar from the death penalty and getting everything else on record for the appeals.
As for the appeals themselves, what grounds are there? Even offhand, without doing any research, my dad said there are tons and tons. Right off he named 1) denial of effective assistance of counsel, due to the fact that the defense was blocked from bringing the strongest case it could, 2) denial of the right for Dzhokhar to assist in his own defense, due in part to the Special Administrative Measures placed on him in pre-trial custody, among other things, and 3) denial of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers, which means he could have been able to take the stand if he’d had an impartial venue, but in the current one it was too risky. These are just a few of many, and in the Democracy Now! interview, Hofstra constitutional law professor Eric Freedman outlines more:
…there will be an appeal about the failure to change venue, there will be an appeal about the failure to give this instruction [from the judge to the jury about the law that a holdout from one juror results in an automatic life sentence, not a hung jury that could result in a retrial, requested repeatedly from the defense and denied by the judge]. All the other stuff that is buried in this record, that’s going to result in a brief of over a thousand pages on appeal, we don’t know about yet. Many of the things that the defense may have been complaining about that they weren’t given access to put together that mitigation case, because they couldn’t get a visa to Russia, hypothetically, or because other efforts were made to block evidence, almost by definition, we don’t know about yet.
All in all, and as many news outlets are already saying, this saga is far from over. The appeals are just gearing up, and considering all the unconstitutional missteps taken, it could be years or even over a decade before it’s all cleared up, or even overturned and retried.
Part Five: What Now?
I’ve been wondering this myself. For two years, I’ve been waiting for answers. Now that I have them, I don’t know what to do with them. I feel I have uncovered something unsightly, and I don’t feel triumphant – just queasy. I know the majority of the world doesn’t share my opinion. I know the name Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has become synonymous with the most heinous and evil deeds of which a human being is capable. And I don’t deny that he did them; even he doesn’t deny that he did them. But in testimony that didn’t receive as much weight as I thought was due, I heard a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, a fierce advocate of death penalty abolition, speak of him with fondness. She expressed genuine appreciation that she was able to discuss the differences between Catholicism and Islam with him. And I heard, in one sentence, everything I had needed to know if I’d ever been granted a chance to speak to him myself, about how he feels about the horror he caused: “No one deserves to suffer like they did.”
No one deserves to suffer like they did.
One simple sentence conveys so much: empathy, an inclusiveness of human life, understanding of the gravity of what he did, and true remorse. I hold these words close, the last communication we may ever get from someone who used to shoot pithy observations into the Twittersphere several times a day.
No one deserves to suffer like they did.
I agree with him. No one does – not even Dzhokhar himself. The cycle has to stop somewhere.
Because we’re not dealing with a war criminal, or a terrorist mastermind backed by a powerful organization with a campaign of misdeeds under his belt. We’re dealing with someone who was a good kid, who still is a good kid. He’s a good kid who, through lack of perceived options and the foresight of an adult brain, made one colossal mistake, and is paying, and paying, and paying. Everything else – the designation of terrorist, the ruthless rush to judgment without considering facts, the unfair trial – that’s on us.
Make no mistake: I love America. I was born and raised here, and I grew up believing we are the best and freest country in the world, that we stand for justice and integrity and fairness. And I still believe we are among the best – every semester I have scores of students from impoverished or war-torn countries writing about the opportunities available to them here that were never a possibility in their homeland, and I feel a swell of pride. I am the descendant of Irish who fled famine and oppression, of an Armenian whose entire village was wiped out in a genocide that, even one hundred years later, hasn’t been officially recognized. I wouldn’t exist if not for an America that let these people in, that fostered them and allowed them to grow and flourish. But the love I have for America is an unconditional love, which means it can endure, even when I am angry or disappointed in my country. And after what I witnessed at Dzhokhar’s trial, I am downright appalled. He’s not the worst of the worst with decades of depravity to his name. He is a 21-year-old kid who could have graduated college this weekend if circumstances had been slightly different. And if the unfairness that happened at his trial could befall him, then it could happen to your friend, your nephew, your son. It could happen to me, and it could happen to you. Guilt or innocence doesn’t matter: everyone has the right to a fair trial in this country, and the right to have their punishment fit their crimes. The fact that Dzhokhar didn’t get one and wound up with a much harsher sentence than he deserves is such a blot on our character as a nation that I am embarrassed for us.
Is this the kind of justice we want to stand for?
I don’t think it is. Which is why I’m here, writing this to you. I hope you are out there somewhere reading these words, and they have given you a measure of understanding. If you have made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read and consider my point of view.
And as for Dzhokhar – I can only pray that he maintains the virtues described by all the people who knew and love him. He’s going to need every one for the struggle to come.
Which is, to end on a note of irony, the true definition of jihad.