Who Killed Sean Collier? Part Two: The Gun

(This post is a continuation of a series. Please see Part One.)

Exh 930 - 13-08140 rush 023-resized
Exhibit 930 – The Ruger P95 handgun that killed Officer Sean Collier. Unfortunately, its identity as the murder weapon is the only straightforward thing about it.

Introduction: A Tale of One Gun

The night of April 18th, 2013, at 10:24 p.m., in the Koch courtyard on MIT’s campus, Officer Sean Collier sat in his cruiser. I can picture the quiet hum of Cambridge, the orange hue cast over the concrete sidewalk from the streetlights, the hopeful hint of warmth to the April air. However, these images are cut off from the reality that transpired when someone approached Officer Collier’s window with a gun. Did the assailant throw open the door first, or did Collier try to get out? Was there a conversation, or did the perpetrator simply start shooting? Where did the golf gloves come from — the shooter, Collier’s own car, or somewhere else entirely?

In my heart, I am a fiction writer, and these holes in the narrative frustrate me. I miss the days when I could just decide what happened in a story, nail down a detail because it seemed realistic or the imagery was striking. I’ve grown disdainful of fictionalized accounts of any “true event,” because I’ve learned that after a certain point, someone in a room somewhere simply makes it up, and everyone accepts it, even if it is wrong. I shudder to think what the upcoming Hollywood movie about the Marathon Bombing is going to do to further damage the public’s view of what happened, to callously assign blame like it isn’t literally the difference between life and death.

To combat this, I refuse to deal in approximations. I may never know exactly what happened in the last moments of Sean Collier’s life, but I think he deserves the truest possible version. After months of pouring over the eyewitness testimony and studying the location in question, I am confident of one thing: the person who appeared at Collier’s window with a gun wasn’t Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Regardless, he was killed by someone. The murder weapon was a Ruger P95 handgun with the serial number filed off, recovered from the shootout in Watertown, the gun that was in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possession. This was established at trial through testimony and Massachusetts State Police reports also match the ballistics from the Ruger to the bullets recovered from Collier’s body. There’s no doubt about it: this is the gun.

But where did it come from?

Continue reading “Who Killed Sean Collier? Part Two: The Gun”

Reader Q&A #1: Forensic Evidence of Sean Collier’s Murder

There was forensic evidence from Sean Collier’s crime scene, but what does it really tell us?

I’m at work on the research and analysis on the next post in my series about Sean Collier’s murder, but it’s going to be a few more weeks before I can get that out. In the meantime, I was thrilled to realize recently that readers on Twitter have been reaching out with comments and questions about the last post, and so I thought it might be a good idea to answer them in a blog post. If there is enough interest, I hope I can make these posts a continuing series. I have so many intelligent and engaged readers, and I absolutely encourage a dialogue as I continue to research this case and appeal efforts are made on Dzhokhar’s behalf. If you are not following the Twitter, you can do so here: @USvTsarnaev. However, I am happy to take questions a variety of methods: you can leave comments to the posts, use the Twitter, or send us an email at mail@us-v-tsarnaev.org.

And so, without further ado, let’s turn to the questions.

Continue reading “Reader Q&A #1: Forensic Evidence of Sean Collier’s Murder”

Who Killed Sean Collier? Part One: The Bike Man

Missing links about the murder of Officer Collier could shed light on the overall role of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Marathon Bombing plot.

April 18, 2013.

My recollection of this date, as a resident of Boston, is vivid. It had been a mentally exhausting week: from the bombing on Monday, to the line of army men stationed in the Harvard T station to check bags, to the circus in town at Government Center, where I took my preschoolers on a field trip. I recall stepping off the bus clutching four-year-olds in each hand, only to be greeted by a hoard of area policemen in full riot gear and assault rifles. That week, every emotion was heightened, every person waiting for the other shoe to drop. It would either be another attack, or an inevitable arrest. There seemed to be no other possibility.

So when around midnight my roommate told me a police officer had been shot and killed at MIT, I thought: This week has brought all the crazies out. My next thought was: I’m going to bed. I had a class to teach at 8:30 the next morning. I didn’t think a shooting at MIT could be related to the bombing, and I certainly didn’t fathom that within six hours, the entire city would be shut down while law enforcement searched for a teenager from a neighborhood I was intimately familiar with.

When the trial started last year, one of the many things I hoped would be clarified were the events of that evening — but, as you probably know, the trial left me with more questions than answers. In the months since the three-week stretch I spent in a courtroom with Dzhokhar, the more determined I’ve become to answer the questions myself. And when I went home for Christmas this year, my father and I became acutely focused on one question: who killed Officer Sean Collier?

Continue reading “Who Killed Sean Collier? Part One: The Bike Man”

A Scholar’s Impression of the Tsarnaev Motion to Appoint Counsel on Appeal

So it begins.

On February 17th, Dzhokhar’s lawyers filed a motion requesting that appellate counsel be appointed to handle the case going forward. This is big news. While I am at work on my next post, I thought it was worth sharing the impressions of the document written by our contributing death penalty scholar, Margo Schulter. To follow along, you can click below to access the document in PDF form:

Motion to Appoint Counsel on Appeal

From here, I’ll give the floor to Margo.

Continue reading “A Scholar’s Impression of the Tsarnaev Motion to Appoint Counsel on Appeal”

Appeal Update, Site Changes and What’s Next on the Blog

Hello and happy 2016! I apologize that I’m not coming to you with a new post of case analysis, but there’s been some developments in both the case and the blog, so I wanted to address those fairly quickly before moving on. Rest assured I have been hard at work on the research and planning, as new information is still coming to me regularly, and I will be getting it out soon. But first…

Appeal and Case Updates

The law has spoken. Okay, for now.

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What’s In an Appeal? The Process in the Tsarnaev Case So Far


Artist’s rendition of how his year has felt to me.

As we near the end of 2015, I must reflect on what a tumultuous year it’s been. At this time last year, I saw Dzhokhar’s trial approaching like a tidal wave coming from a long way off. A year ago, I still believed in the inherent success of the U.S. justice system. I thought whatever the outcome of the trial, I would have to shake my head sadly and walk away from this case, despite my strong feelings about it. I thought nobody cared what I had to say about Dzhokhar, the tragic turn of events that befell him, or what might happen to him in the future.

It’s funny how much things can change in a year.

To close out this strange, stormy 2015, I thought it would be a good idea to address the current actions of Dzhokhar’s defense team, now that the post-conviction proceedings have begun. If you have been reading this blog, then I suspect you are not just interested in this case but hopeful about the appeals. Rest assured, I am still researching and investigating other aspects of this case, and I am eager to return to them when the time is right. However, after attending the first postconviction motion hearing on December 1st, I thought there was no better time to go over what’s been filed and argued so far.

Continue reading “What’s In an Appeal? The Process in the Tsarnaev Case So Far”

Further Notes on Dr. Matthew Levitt’s Tsarnaev Trial Testimony: Junk Psychology, Islamophobia, and Bad History, Oh My!

It’s time to dive into some court testimony.

I can think of no better place to start than with Dr. Matthew Levitt. As you may recall from my previous post, Dr. Levitt was an expert witness called by the government to discuss the “jihadi materials” found on the laptop of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I have a few follow-up posts planned for the subjects brought up in that entry, but I think a clearer, more in-depth look at the foundation laid by the prosecution in Dr. Levitt’s testimony is the best place to begin. As you may recall, I had several problems with the validity of the evidence cited by Dr. Levitt — chiefly the propaganda materials found on Dzhokhar’s computer — as being a reliable measurement of radicalization. Since so much in this case rests on motive, if there is no compelling evidence that Dzhokhar was radicalized, it fundamentally breaks down the prosecution’s theory of the case, not just in the penalty phase, but in the guilt phase as well.

At the time of my last post, I was relying on media coverage of Dr. Levitt’s testimony and conceded that I could not know exactly how accurate the approximation was. However, thanks to an amazingly kind and generous reader, I now have the full transcript of his direct and cross examination, and can give it a more informed critique. Many, many thanks to this reader.

I confess that I hoped getting my hands on the full transcript would force me to revise my opinion of Dr. Levitt’s testimony. A lot can be lost in translation when it comes to the media, particularly when journalists are frantically condensing real time interactions into tweets of 140 characters or less. However, for this I must give credit where it is due: the responses quoted from Dr. Levitt are more or less presented as they were delivered. Unfortunately, that means that at its core, his testimony as an expert witness is inherently flawed, and there are valid legal questions that can be asked about why it was allowed in the courtroom at all. I am also interested in the parts of the transcript that were not reported by the media — direct quotation reveals much that fell through the cracks, as does the sidebar conference discussions that were had out of earshot of the jury and media, but recorded by the court reporter.

By the end of this post, it’s my hope you will understand not only what makes Dr. Levitt’s testimony so flawed, but why he shouldn’t have been allowed to testify as an expert witness in the first place. Allowing his testimony was a clear abuse of discretion by Judge O’Toole, and defense counsel tried their best to stop it, but to no avail.

I may take issue with most of what Dr. Levitt has to say, but I hope we can all agree that tie is sharp.

Continue reading “Further Notes on Dr. Matthew Levitt’s Tsarnaev Trial Testimony: Junk Psychology, Islamophobia, and Bad History, Oh My!”