FBI agents who interrogated two college friends of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were portrayed by defense attorneys as highly manipulative, using intimidation and false friendliness to coerce two students from central Asia to talk before they realized the legal repercussions.
The behavior of the agents came under scrutiny Wednesday, the second day of a pretrial hearing before US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock to determine if statements made by Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, two former UMassDartmouth students from Kazakhstan, should be suppressed before their trials because they were not voluntarily made. The two men are accused of obstruction of justice after allegedly trying to hide evidence to protect Tsarnaev while he was on the run April 19.
Under cross-examination by Kadyrbayev’s defense lawyer, FBI agent John Walker acknowledged that both men spent about seven hours on April 19, 2013, shirtless and handcuffed, after being ordered out of their off-campus New Bedford apartment, where agents suspected Tsarnaev might be hiding. Agents ordered the men to remove their shirts during the evacuation, and another agent, Farbod Azad, acknowledged that Kadyrbayev had later asked for a blanket because he was cold, but was not given anything to cover his upper body.
Walker said that Kadyrbayev was viewed April 19 primarily as a witness whom they wanted to question about his ties to Tsarnaev, and that he was free to leave anytime.
“He was a witness you kept restrained and handcuffed?” asked Robert G. Stahl, Kadyrbayev’s attorney.
Kadyrbayev is expected to take the stand to back up his statements that he was improperly coerced to cooperate. His defense team is also scheduled to call an expert witness to testify that his English last year was inadequate to understand the interrogation.
Prosecutors have depicted the FBI agents as acting prudently, given the terrorist crisis that erupted April 19 when Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, died in a shoot-out with police and Tsarnaev escaped, ultimately to a boat in a backyard in Watertown.
At that time, the FBI agents said, they had yet to rule out the possibility that Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov were coconspirators, given their extensive sharing of cellphones and Internet accounts. Also, Azad testified Wednesday that only after hours of interrogation did Kadyrbayev admit he took a laptop and backpack, containing fireworks, from Tsarnaev’s dorm room. That would turn out to be a key finding that ultimately led to the recovery of the backpack in a landfill and is critical evidence in the trial against Tsarnaev scheduled for November.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev for his role in the April 15, 2013, bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 others. The brothers also allegedly killed an MIT officer.
A third friend of Tsarnaev’s from UMass-Dartmouth, Robel Phillipos, is charged with lying to investigators about where he was and what he saw on the night of April 18. He was not a focus of Wednesday’s hearing, which centered on federal agents who interrogated Tsarnaev’s friends who lived in the New Bedford apartment.
The judge granted requests Tuesday for separate trials in Boston for Kadyrbayev, Tazhayakov, and Phillipos. The trial of Tazhayakov begins first, at the end of next month.
Agent Azad said he developed a friendly, even joking, relationship with Kadyrbayev, though he acknowledged that Kadyrbayev’s vocabulary had limitations that included not knowing the word fireworks. Agents ultimately made the meaning of that word known through drawings and hand gestures. Azad said Kadyrbayev had a relaxed demeanor throughout the interview and at no time said he did not understand the conversation.
“It was really voluntary,” Azad said.
Kadyrbayev’s defense lawyer, however, suggested the good will was fake and said his client was unfairly deprived of a lawyer during questioning. At one point when Kadyrbayev asked Azad during the interview, “Do I need a lawyer?” Azad said he responded that it was his decision, though he was not under arrest. Ultimately, the interrogation continued, and Kadyrbayev allegedly never brought up the topic again.
Both FBI agents testified that the following afternoon, on April 20, they went to the New Bedford apartment, and that Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov greeted them and freely allowed them into their home, with seemingly no ill will. Unbeknownst to them, the FBI had been working with a Homeland Security Investigations unit on arresting the pair for visa violations. Agent Walker apparently told other agents earlier that day there was a plan to “hook them up,” a reference to ultimately handcuffing and arresting the two men.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov would be arrested that day, and the conspiracy to obstruct justice charges came days later after officers pulled Tsarnaev’s laptop from the landfill.