At long last, the podcast is here. It’s called Marathon.
How to Listen
• right here on the blog, with the embedded player
• on its host page, Spreaker
• on iTunes, where you can also subscribe to get new episodes
If you use iTunes, please take a minute to rate and review. It will help the podcast gain visibility in the iTunes store, which will create more awareness for the case.
On April 15, 2013, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Two years later, 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in federal court for his involvement in the attacks. During the penalty phase, I was in the courtroom. I walked in wanting to understand his story. I left unsure he was even guilty, let alone deserving to die. Since that day, I have been researching and writing about the case, trying to understand what really happened. His is the tale of an immigrant, a Muslim, an American, a kid I almost knew and certainly would have liked. Marathon explores that story and its legal, historical, and political context, all for a singular purpose: to save a life.
Episode One: The Narrative of the Case, Part 1
How important is the accuracy of a story? When it’s a matter of life and death, it turns out the details matter quite a bit. Heather is joined by “Attorney Dad” Tom Frizzell to talk about the four narratives of the case: the one told by the media, the one told by the prosecution, the one told by the defense, and the one that went unspoken. Continued in Part 2.
Update 2/22/17: Due to some concerns about the validity of the U.S. Attorney’s statement as reported in the Fusion article, I have reached out to the article’s author to see if I can obtain any clarification about what was said. I will update this post if I receive a reply.
It’s not exactly news that the last few weeks of American politics have been chaotic ever since the Republican administration took office. From the discriminatory Muslim travel ban that is being repeatedly struck down in court, to combative White Housespokespeople and fast-developing scandals, it’s been the least organized time in government since perhaps the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
However, I’m not here to talk about the new president or his policies. Instead, I need to tackle something that has been flying more or less under the radar until a few days ago: the appointment of a man named Dr. Sebastian Gorka to the White House’s National Security Council.
As you may have heard on the news, this past Saturday, millions of people in cities, towns, and countries around the globe gathered for the Women’s March, organized to protest the presidency of Donald Trump and the hateful rhetoric that paved his way to power. Although crowd sizes are often difficult to estimate, I have seen from various sources that the overall turnout worldwide was somewhere between 3.3 and 5 million people, whereas Trump’s inauguration only drew a couple hundred thousand at best.
I was at the one in Boston. You would not have been able to keep me away under any circumstances, but the weather could not have been more beautiful. Unseasonably warm (proof, as someone joked, that climate change is real), the overcast gloom gave way to a brilliantly blue sky as we stood on the Boston Common, which quickly became so crowded I could not see an end to the sea of people. The crowd seemed never-ending, full of thoughtful, peaceful dissenters. Many had signs with phrases more clever than I could have devised. There was a stage set up, but it was so far away its speakers cast a distant echo that although audible, revealed a startling truth: they did not plan for this many people. Later news reports said the organizers planned for a crowd size of 25 thousand. We exceeded that by about 100 thousand.
As 2016 draws to a close, I find myself looking back on a contradictory, tumultuous year. In terms of this blog and my investigation into the case, I feel good: much has been uncovered, and the discussions I’m having and the awareness I’m raising are enlightening and filling me with hope. On the other hand, the American political landscape I am surveying is far more challenging than I ever could have imagined when my journey started in a Boston federal courtroom a year and a half ago. I’m hyperaware of the passage of time these days, and know that each rotation of the earth is another day for Dzhokhar in prison under dubious circumstances. It’s forced me to re-evaluate everything about myself and the direction I want to take this project I have undertaken, as well as my life in general.
I would like to update you on all these things and what it means for the blog (spoilers: good news!). First, however, there’s information that I’ve been wanting to post about for months: updates to the stories I posted over the course of 2016, thanks to tips sent to me by sharp-eyed readers. I would not have been able to make these connections if not for their input, and my gratitude to them is immense. I encourage all of you out there, if you think you have information useful for the investigation, please do not hesitate to email me using the contact page. I read and evaluate everything that comes through there, even if I don’t have time to respond. Given the incredibly complex nature of this case, sometimes details don’t make sense to me until much later, so I assure you that your input is valued.
Confession: I’ve been avoiding talking about the US presidential election on this blog for quite some time. My reasoning for this was that it wasn’t relevant to the facts of Dzhokhar’s case, nor the appeal process. I also know a decent chunk of my readership is outside America, and I didn’t want to clog up my posts with too much political commentary for those of you whom this maelstrom does not directly affect. Finally, I strive to keep my tone optimistic; there’s no point in reading — or writing — about a situation that’s hopeless. And I believe that Dzhokhar’s is not.
That being said, the notion that national politics and Dzhokhar’s case are not linked is not entirely true, as much as I wish otherwise. My research has revealed to me time and again that political aims were the driving force of the prosecution against him: I have a difficult time imagining a sentence so severe for the same circumstances if the defendant had not been Muslim. (The recent acquittal of Ammon and Ryan Bundy for — in some respects — very similar charges did nothing to dispel this.) This speaks to larger issues in this country, especially in the areas of law enforcement and national security. Not to mention, the next president may indeed have a direct effect on the outcome of Dzhokhar’s appeal. There’s still a Supreme Court vacancy to be filled, and the likelihood that his case will be coming up to it within the next eight years is pretty high.
Last month, my father visited me in Boston so that we could do several case-related site visits. Among them was a test drive we’d been wanting to do for quite some time: measuring the actual distance between the greater Boston area and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dzhokhar’s college campus.
At trial, the prosecution made several assertions about Dzhokhar’s whereabouts in the months leading up to the April 15th bombing at the Boston Marathon. Many of these claims would have required him to, on a dime, drive north from UMass Dartmouth to Boston, as if the two locations are situated nearby one another. As I’ve discussed in a previous post (see subsection: “Dzhokhar’s January”), this is simply not true. The distance between the two locations is significant enough that driving it on a regular basis would have been a noticeable inconvenience, a fact that was never addressed at trial.
(This is a continuation of a study about the Ruger P95 that killed Officer Collier. Please read the first installment here if you haven’t already before moving on.)
Recap: Finding Howie
When we last left off, I was trying to trace the chain of custody of the Ruger P95 that killed Officer Sean Collier. Unsatisfied by the vague, inconsistency-ridden testimony of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friend Stephen Silva, my father and I hoped to find the enigmatic “Howie,” the only name given to the friend Silva reportedly obtained the gun from. It took a few months for us to learn Howie’s identity: Merhawi Berhe, a young man who had pled not guilty to possessing the gun and made bail at the exact time Stephen Silva, one floor down, was testifying at Dzhokhar’s trial that Howie was the source of said weapon. It wasn’t until a year later, in March of 2016, that he changed his plea to guilty, and thanks to a Google news alert, I heard about it.
This threw me for a loop. I grilled my dad for details, to see if he had any insight into why something like this would happen. I knew that in the US legal system, pleading guilty or not guilty doesn’t always have direct bearing on a person’s actual innocence. Just because Howie pled not guilty doesn’t mean he had nothing to do with possessing the Ruger. What was strange, however, was why the federal prosecutors went after him right when it would be pertinent for Dzhokhar’s trial: on March 10th, 2015, when the indictment was signed, the prosecution was only a week into their case during the guilt phase. The timing suggested that Howie was wanted as a corroborating witness for Stephen Silva, who would be testifying the following week.
“He could have gotten the same deal Silva did,” my father said. “That’s how this stuff works. They bring in these people to testify in another case and cut them a sweetheart deal. He’s exactly the kind of witness I would have wanted if I had been the prosecutor.”