Ending a tense confrontation, Azamat Tazhayakov, who could get up to 25 years for obstructing the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, finished testifying Wednesday as a prosecution witness against his former close friend Robel Phillipos, an appearance that he hopes will shorten his future sentence.
The 20-year-old from Kazakhstan may reappear in federal court as a government witness against an even closer friend: Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
During a court recess Wednesday, Tazhayakov’s lawyer, Matthew Myers, said he is in preliminary talks with the US attorney’s office about Tazhayakov testifying against Tsarnaev, in yet another potential deal to lessen his prison time. If a deal is reached for Tazhayakov to testify, it is likely his sentencing would be postponed until after Tsarnaev’s trial, set for early next year.
Myers declined to disclose the type of information that the former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student might disclose, other than to say it was about comments made to him by Tsarnaev. Myers asserted that Tazhayakov, despite any deal, will testify honestly about his friendship with the bombing suspect, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of the bombings that killed three and injured more than 260.
“He’s simply telling what he knows and what happened,” Myers said.
On Wednesday, Tazhayakov underwent intense questioning by both sides in the trial of Phillipos, a Cambridge man who is accused of lying to federal investigators about his whereabouts and observations on the the night of April 18, 2013, when incriminating evidence was removed from Tsarnaev’s dorm room. Defense attorneys have said Phillipos did not lie because he was “high out of his mind” and has little memory of what happened that night. They say that a statement he signed April 26, 2013, was coerced by an FBI agent and does not reflect what he remembers.
Tazhayakov’s testimony sounded much like a public confession of the crimes he was convicted of in July. Tazhayakov, who never took the stand during his trial, admitted that he and Dias Kadyrbayev entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room on April 18, 2013, after suspecting that newly released FBI photos showed Tsarnaev, their buddy with whom they hung out nearly every day.
Tazhayakov acknowledged they took some items, including a backpack containing emptied fireworks. Hours later, after seeing news reports of the manhunt for the bombing suspects, they dumped the backpack in a dumpster behind their New Bedford apartment.
Tazhayakov’s testimony echoed what Kadyrbayev admitted to when he pleaded guilty in August, a month after Tazhayakov’s conviction, in return for the government’s recommendation of a maximum seven-year prison term.
In important testimony for the prosecution, Tazhayakov placed Phillipos squarely inside the dorm room when the backpack was taken and in the New Bedford apartment when discussions about dumping the backpack took place.
This testimony was reinforced by text messages released by prosecutors. In one set of messages allegedly sent just before the friends went to Tsarnaev’s room, Phillipos asks Tazhayakov around 9:30 p.m. on April 18, 2013: “Where are you.” Around 10 p.m., Kadyrbayev allegedly replied by text, “Come to Jahar’s!!”
A text sent by Phillipos at about 10:15 p.m. to Tsarnaev, reads, “Where u at bird.” However there was no response.
Meanwhile Tazhayakov did not offer conclusive evidence that Phillipos knew the backpack and fireworks were being removed from the room.
Tazhayakov testified that after going to the dorm room, the three friends went to the New Bedford apartment, and in the early morning hours of April 19, 2013, Kadyrbayev began to panic and said he “wanted to throw out the backpack.”
Phillipos’ lawyers have asserted that the pair from Kazakhstan spoke in Russian at this time, and Phillipos, while sleeping on a couch, was not aware of what was happening.
On Wednesday, Tazhayakov testified that he believed he and Kadyrbayev were speaking in English, as they typically do when around non-Russian speakers. When asked if Phillipos was asleep during the discussion of tossing the backpack, he replied, “I believe he was awake.”
Tazhayakov testified that Phillipos left the apartment in the morning of April 19, after getting a ride from a friend.
In text messages to friends later, Phillipos characterized his interviews on April 19, 2013, with federal agents as light-hearted and full of talk about pot. In one text message he writes, “They were nice guys. I had to list the amount of times I smoked once I stepped on the campus, and we all started laughing.”
But seven days later, Phillipos found himself in a far more sober scene, the focus of an interrogation in a small room in an FBI office, signing a statement about his involvement in the backpack removal. His attorneys now say that was a coerced confession from a scared teen. In that statement, Phillipos is quoted as telling Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, both seeking to toss out the incriminating backpack, “Do what you have to do.”
On Wednesday, Phillipos’ defense attorney asked Tazhayakov if he remembered hearing Phillipos say the phrase.
“I don’t remember,” he replied.