Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was seen in public for the first time in more than a year and a half Thursday, appearing in a federal courtroom for 25 minutes in preparation for his trial next month.
Tsarnaev, now 21, appeared well-dressed, lucid, and alert. His curly brown hair was long and unkempt, and he had a full beard. He touched his face at times and fidgeted.
Tsarnaev stood and politely answered “Yes, sir,” when US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. asked whether he has followed the proceedings and has been communicating with his lawyers leading up to the scheduled Jan. 5 start of the trial. Asked if he thought his lawyers were working in his best interest, Tsarnaev replied, “Very much.”
The brief hearing demonstrated the building anticipation for Tsarnaev’s trial. It attracted dozens of spectators, including bombing survivors and their relatives, those who simply wanted to get a glimpse of Tsarnaev, and supporters who believe Tsarnaev is innocent.
Law enforcement officials and dozens of journalists crowded the courthouse, and one of the bombing survivors had a brief, but emotional clash with one of Tsarnaev’s supporters.
At Thursday’s hearing, Tsarnaev’s lawyers said they plan to file a motion to ask for the trial to be pushed back to a later date, saying they have not been able to adequately prepare and that recent events have slowed their work. They did not describe the events.
“We’re still analyzing what these issues are,” attorney David Bruck said.
But O’Toole seemed focused on the Jan. 5 start date. He said he will discuss the process for selecting jurors with lawyers, but will keep those discussions private so that they do not “undermine our ability to select a jury.”
O’Toole also said he will keep the government’s list of potential witnesses sealed until a jury is selected.
The judge said he will rule on other issues, such as the defense team’s renewed request to move the trial to another district.
But O’Toole refused to hold a hearing to investigate law enforcement leaks of information to the media, and he asked lawyers and prosecutors to continue to negotiate the sharing of evidence.
Tsarnaev, who grew up in Cambridge, is facing multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty in the April 15, 2013, bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 260. He and his older brother Tamerlan, then 26, also allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer days after the bombings before they attempted to flee the area. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a violent confrontation with police in Watertown.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer.
Tsarnaev appeared more alert than he did at his arraignment in July 2013, the last time he was seen in public. He spoke clearly, and looked relaxed, dressed in a black collared sweater over a white dress shirt, and gray pants. Last time Tsarnaev was in court, he wore orange prison garb.
He spoke quietly to his defense attorneys, and leaned back in his chair.
At the end of Thursday’s proceedings, one of Tsarnaev’s supporters stood and shouted at him in Russian — she later said it had been a message of support.
Elena Teyer then said in English with a thick Russian accent, “Stop killing innocent people, don’t kill innocent boy, please.”
She was quickly escorted from the courtroom.
Teyer, a retired US Army pharmacy specialist from Georgia, is the mother-in-law of Ibragim Todashev, who was shot and killed by an FBI agent in May 2013. The FBI has said that Todashev attacked the agent during an interrogation in his Orlando, Fla., home. Todashev had allegedly just confessed that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had participated in the September 2011 murder of three people in Waltham.
Outside the courtroom, a Stoneham man who lost the lower part of his right leg in the bombings confronted one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s supporters, who had held a “Got proof?” sign. Marc Fucarile, who has regularly attended Tsarnaev’s court hearings, held up his prosthetic leg to argue that he was living proof that the bombings had occurred.
Later, Fucarile said he was thankful for the support he received from friends before attending the hearing.
“Like I said, they’re all welcome to their opinions,” he said of the Tsarnaev supporters. “There’s supporters for him, and then there’s supporters for us.”
He added: “Just grateful I’m alive, and happy to be here.”
Watch NBC video of Tsarnaev being led by authorities: