Four Years: State of the Blog

Four years ago today, I wrote a blog post that changed my life.

Boy, time flies.

I know I’ve been quiet for awhile, but I wanted to give a quick recap of the last year, and give a preview to what will appear on the blog in the future.

At lot has happened in the last year in regard to the case. The first appellate brief was filed in December, and by all accounts it looks like our investigation on this site backs up the arguments Dzhokhar’s lawyers are making: “radicalization” was never a factor in this case, that he acted out of duress, and the trial never should have been allowed to occur in Boston. Furthermore, rampant anti-Muslim bias colored the legal proceedings and robbed Dzhokhar of any hope of a fair trial. We’re still waiting on the government’s response to the massive brief, which spans over 1000 pages, but I find this all to be very positive news so far.

In the mean time, the investigation continues. Although the blog has been quiet, behind the scenes the work I’m putting into this case is more substantial than ever. I’m writing my Master’s thesis about it, which will be finished in June when I graduate (fingers crossed). I am focusing on the effects of Orientalism and Islamophobia on the narrative that was produced about Dzhokhar and his role in the Boston Marathon bombing. To do this, I am examining his interaction with law enforcement, particularly the text of the hospital confession that was unsealed on the court docket last October; the story about him as presented by the prosecutors at trial (and also the defense); and the media coverage of the case at its inception point in April 2013 and throughout the 2015 trial. Everything is still a work in progress right now, and two of my professors have already said I could (and should) write a book(!) with the amount of stuff I have to talk about, but I’m getting there.

I’m planning to release my thesis research on this site when I’m finished, probably altered slightly to be more blog-friendly, and with additional content, especially regarding the hospital confession. My adviser recommended I cut down some of what I had in my initial draft because I was focusing too much on arguing against Dzhokhar’s guilt, which… yes, I 100% admit to doing that. I’m more legal-minded than I realized, who knew? I do find this to be the most important part of the thesis: that there are all these forces fueling a negative, inaccurate view of Muslims, and as a result, an innocent person is sitting on death row. Although my early drafts are messy, they’ve produced some really useful things. For instance, I transcribed the entire hospital confession from the court docket’s PDF: Dzhokhar’s notes, the FBI agents’, and their typed 302s. Looking at all of it side by side has been really eye-opening. I also think I may have finally cracked the mystery of the boat note, the biggest thorn in my side these last few years. More to come on that.

I have discussed Islamophobia on this blog in the past, but very little about what Orientalism is and why it’s relevant to Dzhokhar’s case (unless you’re an avid follower of me on social media, as I think I’ve mentioned it on Twitter). Orientalism is a theory put forth by an English literature scholar who originally hailed from Palestine, Edward Said. He wrote an incredible book about it in 1978 which spawned the entire field of post-colonial studies. His work has been absolutely essential to my understanding not just of what happened to Dzhokhar, but how terrorism (and why it’s assumed to be something committed by Muslims) is perceived in this country. Unfortunately, unlike Islamophobia, Orientalism is not widely discussed outside of academic circles. The two are linked, but while Islamophobia is an attitude that views Muslims as a threat to Western civilization, Orientalism is far more widespread and deep-seated. It is born from centuries of Western colonization and domination of the Islamic East (known at one time as “the Orient”), and has not only spawned a number of negative stereotypes about Muslims and Muslim countries, but effects everything that is known in the West about Islam and Muslims. This is because until very recently in history, Muslims did not have the power to question these prejudiced notions about themselves. This phenomenon is not unique to Muslims, of course – it’s how inaccurate derogatory stereotypes arise and persist about all oppressed groups of people. However, in Orientalism it’s tied to how the “center” of civilization is considered the West, and creates that split between the West and the East that is entirely imaginary. Even though colonialism is officially over, these attitudes persist in the people and institutions who get to say what is “true” about things that directly effect Muslims, like foreign and domestic American policy.

This is extremely relevant to Dzhokhar’s case, because the narrative about what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing has always been dominated by the US government: by law enforcement, particularly the FBI, and then the federal prosecutors at trial. Finally getting a hold of the hospital confession notes was instrumental for my understanding of how the FBI operates in this context. There was no attempt to get Dzhokhar’s side of the story – they were actively feeding him their own idea of what happened, and then would not leave him alone until he repeated it back to them. And then, he did it so poorly, that the agents actually returned for a second interview, during which they didn’t let him write notes at all, and simply wrote the story for him with more “details” they had gathered from other parts of the investigation.

This is how “knowledge” about terrorism is produced, then is taken as true without question, and colors everything that comes after. It’s an ominous echo chamber, fueled by stereotypes the FBI already believed about someone like Dzhokhar. Once law enforcement had their Muslim brothers fueled by religious fervor, there was no need for them to ask the more logistical questions I’ve spent the last four years trying to answer. This isn’t even particularly uncommon when it comes to law enforcement practices, either. The Innocence Project details exactly how easily false confessions can contribute to wrongful convictions. While it isn’t always Orientalism that feeds them, similar factors like racial bias certainly do.

And Orientalism goes deep. Deeper than I ever feared. As deep as other harmful prejudices like racism and sexism, topics that are getting a lot more air time in the current political era. I think bringing Orientalism into the public conversation is absolutely essential if we’re ever going to stop things like what happened to Dzhokhar from happening again. Unfortunately, openly discussing Orientalism means acknowledging the colonial legacy of the European powers, and that America, in the decades since World War II, has continued this legacy of domination through its foreign policy practices (i.e. the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc). Hence, there’s a lot of political incentive to keep the concept out of the minds of the public. Instead, we are told stories about the scary Muslims coming to our shores, so that will make us support draconian “national security” measures to keep us safe.

The social science-y bits aside, the case investigation has been continuing. There’s still lots to unravel on the front of what happened the week of April 15, 2013 and why. We’ve been working for some time to recreate the events that transpired the night of April 18th, especially now that we have the likelihood of third party involvement. I also suspect we’ll be diving into the 2011 Waltham triple murders, because Dzhokhar’s appellate brief makes it clear that case and Tamerlan’s potential involvement in it is a lynch pin to understanding what happened at the Marathon two years later.

But that will have to wait until after graduation, once I have a chance to relocate back to Boston. I’ve been terribly homesick these last couple of years. The distance was needed to give me some perspective, but what has driven this project is my love for the city and my desire to see all of its residents treated equally. Even in the early days of the bombing aftermath, I thought often: Dzhokhar is one of us too. Is that so easy to forget?

It will be good to be home.

I have other things planned, for the blog, for ways to amplify the truths I’ve been uncovering, and some extras that might be cool if I can make them work in the meantime. If I can get my professors on board, I’d love to do a podcast miniseries about what I learned in grad school, to give some better context to the stuff I’m talking about here. Hopefully that might make the wait I’ve put you through worthwhile.

Speaking of the wait, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has stuck with me since the beginning, or has found this blog in the years since Dzhokhar’s trial. It’s hard to believe it was four years ago already. My biggest fear was that once the media sensation of the trial faded, he would fade from memory too. I worried the injustice done to him would be swept under the rug with all the other world’s injustices. But I just broke 10,000 site visitors, and am nearing 40,000 total hits worldwide. This means not only are there a lot of you out there, but you usually stick around to read several pages at a time. For a case that’s been “over” for years now, seeing that it maintains consistent interest means so much to me. I hope one day I can tell Dzhokhar just how many people cared enough about him to want to learn the truth.

But for now, it’s getting late, and there’s more work to be done tomorrow.

As always, thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

7 thoughts on “Four Years: State of the Blog”

    1. Sorry to reply to this so late. Grad school has been kicking my butt. I definitely have seen evidence of backpacks of some kind in the forensic evidence from the crime scenes, but the FBI report I was looking at recently when researching my thesis is very strange. There’s a lot of fingerprint/DNA evidence that excludes Jahar but includes Tamerlan – and more interestingly, excludes them both but includes the names of people who are redacted in the report. My dad and I have talked about the source of the bomb materials purchases in some instances not matching Jahar OR Tamerlan, and it seems like this is a continuation of that pattern.

      More on this to come. I ended up looking at that forensic report more or less by accident when I was trying to find something else, and the technical jargon is difficult to parse, so I want to spend more time with it before I talk about it in depth.

  1. Thanks for continuing to give us your time and energy in running this blog and doing the podcasts. I noticed nobody had commented as of late which is a shame, these are very well written and put together. I am also sorry for having played devil’s advocate with you a bit in the past, but you always put forward good arguments. I don’t really agree with some of your conclusions, but I am still curious to see how this thing evolves.

    1. It’s okay. Thanks for checking in. There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so busy with grad school, although I hope that can change soon. Last week I defended my master’s thesis about the case and passed with honors, so I’ve got a lot of new conclusions to report. Not sure yet exactly how I’m going to get it all out there, but there’s certainly a lot to work with – and there will only be more so as Jahar’s appeal develops.

      But for now… I have ONE more final exam to get through tomorrow before graduation. Whew!

  2. Hi Heather. Recently I have found myself fascinated with this case even though I’ve never been the type of person to be interested in crime, to be honest I would normally stay away from researching cases like this as it tends to make me feel a bit uneasy. However, I was drawn to this case after researching about it recently and with the amount of inconsistencies within it, it has left me with so many questions. I found my way to your blog when I was looking around the internet about this case, and I’m glad I did because your posts are so interesting. I just have a few questions; do you think that he is innocent, did he do it? Also, from what I understand, you don’t believe the death penalty was the right thing, so I was wondering what kind of sentence do you think he deserves? And lastly, do you know if the case / investigation is ongoing, for example, what will be happening with it within the future, or is it over for good?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi T! Thanks for writing. I love to hear from new readers. I’m glad you’ve found the blog interesting and informative. There is a real dearth of sound publicly available information about this case, something I’ve been working for years to change.

      To answer your questions:

      1. do you think that he is innocent, did he do it?

      This is a question that I wish had a simple answer, but sadly doesn’t. In fact, I don’t find the two parts of it (“is he innocent” and “did he do it”) to be mutually exclusive. However, to be as concise as possible, yes, I believe Jahar is innocent. Not because he had no involvement in the crimes, but because all evidence points to his involvement being involuntary. And, more specifically, I can say with confidence that the vast majority of the legal charges he was convicted of he DID NOT, in fact, have any involvement. The charges relied so heavily on conspiracy to commit and aiding and abetting his brother Tamerlan, and I’ve looked and looked. There’s no available evidence he knew about the attacks before they occurred, full stop. There’s also no available evidence to place him at the murder scene of Sean Collier, full stop. Of these charges, due to the lack of evidence, I believe he is actually innocent.

      The murkier parts are more difficult to parse. Yes, there is sufficient evidence to show Jahar was at the scene of the bombing on April 15, 2013, with Tamerlan. He had a backpack that he did not retain when he fled the scene after the second blast, and until I am able to find more compelling evidence, I believe this to be the backpack that exploded. However, Jahar did not have a detonator like the prosecutors claimed, so he was in no way in charge of that explosion. My current theory is that he carried the second backpack for Tamerlan because of threat or coercion, or – and this is my favored theory these days – outright manipulation, meaning he didn’t know what he was carrying. If you watch the surveillance footage, he looks very confused the entire time, which doesn’t really match what you’d expect from someone in the know about what’s going to happen, out of voluntary involvement or even when acting out of fear. I think it’s entirely possible Tamerlan told him just enough to get him there, but not enough to give him enough information to refuse, report him, or otherwise escape. Given Tamerlan’s abusive and violent background, Jahar may have been used to tolerating him without wanting to ask too many questions. This possibility is especially pertinent, given his appellate lawyers’ recent assertions that Jahar learned of previous murders Tamerlan committed in 2011, which caused Jahar to be afraid of him.

      2. I was wondering what kind of sentence do you think he deserves?

      My previous theory rests on a lot of “maybes,” in which it’s honestly impossible to know for sure unless we ask Jahar. I think a fair trial would address these issues, and suss out the level of culpability, such as – if he had known, should he have acted sooner and quicker, and maybe prevented the attack? I personally am of the opinion that given the very real threat posed by Tamerlan, Jahar was not responsible for his actions because his own will was overborne by his brother’s (this would be the duress defense my father has long been championing). Others might think he bears more personal responsibility than that, and might deserve a prison term of some sort. However, regardless, I do think that even if we were to learn of more direct culpability on Jahar’s part, any sentence he would receive has already been served. Six years in solitary confinement with the threat of execution hanging over his head already exceeds any punishment that might fit his crime, in my opinion.

      3. do you know if the case / investigation is ongoing, for example, what will be happening with it within the future, or is it over for good?

      The legal case is still very much active. Jahar’s appellate team filed their opening brief back in December, and will likely be filing more in the future. The goal there is to overturn his convictions and death sentence, so as to one day give him a fair trial without prejudice in an impartial venue (none of which he got the first time around). In that sense, the case is far from being over for good – there’s still a long fight ahead.

      As for any investigations, by law enforcement standards, this case is solved. As far as I know, neither the police nor the FBI are still investigating it. However, the FBI certainly kept investigating long after Jahar’s arrest, despite what they told the public. I believe this was to pursue the very obvious leads that Tamerlan had accomplices who were not Jahar, but kept quiet about it because they’d already told everyone Jahar and Tamerlan were “lone wolves” and there was no more threat to public safety. As far as I know, though, at this point that’s no longer happening.

      There has been little journalistic attention paid to this case after the fact, and none from the angle I have published in this blog. For that reason, I consider mine the only one still “active,” insofar as I’m the only one arguing Jahar has been wrongfully convicted (aside from his appellate team, of course). I am hoping to change this by amplifying the signal of my findings and getting a wider audience aware of all the things that went wrong with Jahar’s case. Doing grad school with the case as my research focus so that I had a better idea of what I was talking about and what to do with it was the first step toward this, and I just graduated last week! Whew. It’s been a hard journey but I think it was worth it.

      I hope this helps! Thanks for your comment and very thought-provoking questions. Since I recently finished up my Master’s thesis on the case, I will be updating the blog soon with a discussion of all my new findings from that. Stay tuned!

  3. Thank you for your reply Heather! I had a discussion with my friend about this, and we too think that he didn’t know what was in the bag he was carrying – that his brother told him it was something else that needed to be dropped of there (drugs, maybe?) and he believed him and dropped the bag off, without being aware it would explode. I have seen the surveillance footage, and although it may look strange that he doesn’t jump as soon as it goes off – not every single person does around him either, and also he looks back a few times after walking off and he looks somewhat confused like he doesn’t understand what happened. This confuses me because surely, someone who had just planted a bomb that would detonate in seconds wouldn’t look back multiple times, wouldn’t they just dart off quickly? This could also be the reason why he is seen shopping at wholefoods (if this is true?) an hour after and also why he is seen back at university the next day (what do you think of this footage of him at the gym, supposedly the day after? https://www.nbcnews.com/video/video=shows-dzhokhar=tsarnaev-after-boston-bombing-304628291573 ). This could simply because he still unaware that it was his bag that exploded, maybe he still thought it was drugs and something else exploded and he’s just going about his normal life until he sees that him and his brother are on the news. This may also explain why he tweeted things the day after it happened. How much do you wish you could just ask him all these unknown questions?!

    Do you know if his lawyer would know if he was aware of what was in his bag or not, do you think that this would have been something that they spoke about and he told her he didn’t know what he was doing at the marathon? Because if so, I wonder why none of this came up in court.

    Replying back to your answer on question 2, I read your post about the trial, and I’ve also read a post from The New Yorker and I’m so curious to know what would have happened in that trial or with this case in general if the older brother was still alive. I understand that you believe that six years in solitary confinement is enough punishment, but do you think he will ever be exonerated and released? I feel that unless there is another person to blame, this may never happen and if it did, he would never be the same person nor safe, although that long in confinement is extreme torture – I’ve read so much about people wanted to get it banned for any longer than 30 days because of the psychological side of it.

    I look forward to reading your thesis on this case and congradulations on graduating!! 🙂

    (P.s, I recently commented this exact reply a few days ago but it never showed up on the comment area, so I’m sorry if this comment is duplicated!)

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