To help orient new readers, this page sums up the information uncovered in our research of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case since the project began. The majority of these discoveries were never reported in the media and were revealed due to scrutiny of the trial record and our own in-person investigations of the crime scenes. The investigation is still ongoing, and information will be added as we learn more. Links to relevant posts are provided below.
Last updated: August 3, 2020
In 2015, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the April 15th, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier three nights later on April 18th. At trial, the prosecution asserted the motive behind the attacks was Islamic radicalism. They argued that Dzhokhar, a Muslim by birth due to his Chechen and Dagestani heritage, “self-radicalized” by consuming jihadist propaganda on the internet. The charges under which he was convicted included conspiracy to commit the attacks with his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Despite this, our investigation has found the following:
Dzhokhar was not radicalized.
• None of the testifying witnesses who knew Dzhokhar before the attacks reported any anger, frustration, aggressive political or religious beliefs, or change in his behavior before the bombing. In contrast, witnesses who knew Tamerlan reported all of these things.
• There is no accepted legal standard for “radicalization,” and no scientific rigor has been applied to the concept, leaving it a dangerously nebulous and subjective phenomenon. Additionally, the US government has a colorful history of using discriminatory practices in “determining” what makes someone radicalized. In keeping with this tradition, the prosecution passed off evidence that Dzhokhar is Muslim as evidence he was radicalized. The “jihadist materials” found on his laptop were shown by the defense to have been put there by Tamerlan, and there is no evidence to prove Dzhokhar even read them.
• The lone government witness who claimed Dzhokhar was radicalized, Matthew Levitt, admitted he was not an expert in psychology, Islam, or the history of Chechnya – yet he was called to testify about all three.
• The only government expert to say social factors were to blame for Dzhokhar’s radicalization did not actually testify in court. Prosecutors used his report in crafting their arguments, although they later denied this. This “expert” is Sebastian Gorka, a now-disgraced former Trump official widely criticized for his anti-Muslim views, shoddy academic record, and membership in a pro-Nazi group. In August 2018, it was reported by The Daily Beast that Gorka is no longer allowed as a consultant on Fox News’s “hard news” programs because his views are too bigoted and lack authority.
Dzhokhar did not conspire with Tamerlan to commit the bombing.
• Dzhokhar’s fingerprints were not found on any of the bomb components, although Tamerlan’s were.
• Dzhokhar did not have a detonator to set off a bomb at the Marathon, despite inaccurate statements from prosecutors. There was only one detonator recovered and it possessed Tamerlan’s prints.
• None of the bomb materials were purchased by Dzhokhar. Evidence shown linked to purchases by Tamerlan suggests Dzhokhar was not present at the time of said purchases. Cell phone data places Dzhokhar well over an hour away from the stores where and when the bomb materials were bought. To illustrate this, we drove one of the distances Dzhokhar would have had to cover in 21 minutes for the government’s timeline to work.
• Dzhokhar did not buy a cell phone to coordinate the attack with Tamerlan at the Marathon. Evidence from his social media and cell phone analyst testimony reveals that his previous cell phone account, shared with college friends, was shut off due to lack of payment. In order to avoid pricey AT&T cancellation fees, he needed a different phone to set up a pre-paid account for personal use.
Dzhokhar was not involved in the murder of Officer Sean Collier.
• There was only one eyewitness who testified to seeing Dzhokhar at the scene of Sean Collier’s murder. He was riding by on a bike and saw someone at the car for a split second. In his testimony, the witness mischaracterized Dzhokhar’s physical description, among other details, by neglecting to mention Dzhokhar had facial hair. The witness also claimed the person he saw wore a knit cap, which was never shown to belong to Dzhokhar. Surveillance footage of Collier’s murder is of such poor quality that it only shows two figures approaching Collier’s car. No other identifying features are intelligible, including race or gender. Dzhokhar’s prints were not recovered from the murder weapon, only Tamerlan’s.
• Dzhokhar did not obtain or provide the murder weapon, a Ruger P95 handgun, to Tamerlan. Dzhokhar’s friend, Stephen Silva, who testified that he lent Dzhokhar the gun, was an incentivized informant facing over 100 years in prison on drug charges. His testimony is overwhelmingly vague and riddled with inconsistencies. It was not corroborated by any other witnesses or evidence, even though they should have been readily available. We discovered a document from Silva’s own court record, in which the stated provider of the gun to Silva does not match the person he named in his testimony at Dzhokhar’s trial. This raises the real possibility of perjury.
• Sources to a journalist we consulted revealed that as late as May 2014, law enforcement was trying to link Tamerlan Tsarnaev to a Portland, Maine-based drug gang as the originator of the murder weapon. These investigators showed no interest in Dzhokhar as part of the Ruger’s chain of custody. Silva was arrested and charged with possession of the Ruger in July 2014 as the result of a separate investigation.
• In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the “residual clause” in several federal statutes regarding possession of a firearm were unconstitutional. These included statutes under which Dzhokhar was convicted regarding the Ruger. In these clauses, the mere possession of a firearm was enough to convict a suspect if murder was then committed with that weapon, even if by another person. This reveals the logic of the prosecutors in trying to prove Dzhokhar obtained the Ruger, even if he didn’t use it. If the government were to prosecute Dzhokhar today, they would have to prove he brandished the Ruger in a show of force, or threat of force, in order to convict. There is no evidence he did this.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev had accomplices in the crimes who were not Dzhokhar.
• Several bomb components remain unaccounted for by purchases made by either Dzhokhar or Tamerlan. Therefore, it is likely there are unnamed accomplices still at large.
• Two mismatched golf gloves with Sean Collier’s blood on them were discovered on the floor of the Honda Civic, registered to Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s father, which was abandoned at the site of the police shootout in Watertown. These gloves were never attributed to Dzhokhar, Tamerlan or Sean Collier. This points to the possibility of involvement by an unnamed third party.
• The night of April 18, 2013, two hours before Sean Collier’s murder, Tamerlan placed a call to his friend Viskhan Vakhabov on the Jahar Tsarni cell phone. Tamerlan and Vakhabov had previous ties to drug dealing activities. After the bombing and murder of Sean Collier, Vakhabov gave inconsistent statements to the FBI about his relationship with Tamerlan and when they last spoke. Although Vakhabov claimed he stopped speaking to Tamerlan a month before the bombing, cell phone records show Tamerlan was calling and texting him on his own phone on April 10, 2013, five days before the bombing. This cell tower data also places Tamerlan at the Marathon finish line on April 10th. Dun Meng, the carjacking victim, was carjacked shortly after Collier’s murder in the vicinity of Brighton Ave and Harvard Ave in Allston – roughly a block from Vakhabov’s residence at the time. Vakhabov refused to testify for the defense at Dzhokhar’s trial, and was granted blanket Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination by the Court. Case law states this protection should not be given to a witness unless there is compelling evidence he was a participant in the crime for which the defendant is on trial. For these reasons, we consider Vakhabov a compelling person of interest in this case.
Systemic social issues, particularly anti-Muslim bigotry which shaped the War on Terror, are root causes of how Dzhokhar was treated by law enforcement, federal prosecutors, and the press.
• In 2019, I completed my master’s thesis exploring the role of Orientalism and Islamophobia in America’s War on Terror, using Dzhokhar’s treatment as a terrorism suspect as a case study. A summary of findings and a copy of that thesis can be found here.