Metro

‘It was him,’ defense admits as Marathon bombing trial begins

After thousands of pages of legal briefs and nearly two years of hearings, a lawyer for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stood in federal court Wednesday, the first day of the long-awaited Marathon bombing trial, and made a startling simple declaration: “It was him.”

Yes, she said, it was Tsarnaev who dropped a backpack containing a bomb on the ground, killing a young boy and a graduate student. And it was Tsarnaev who, along with his brother, went on a violent spree that ended in bloodshed in Watertown.

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“There’s little that occurred the week of April the 15th . . . that we dispute,” attorney Judy Clarke told jurors.

In just over 20 minutes, Clarke provided a detailed account of Tsarnaev’s role in the horrific attacks, though she ultimately sought to portray the now-21-year-old defendant as a reluctant participant in the bombings, coerced by a dominating older brother who was the mastermind. He was less culpable, she said, and therefore should be spared the death penalty.

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Prosecutors gave their own vivid narrative of the bombings, providing new details in the moments leading up to the explosions and their aftermath, including Tsarnaev’s trip to a grocery store 20 minutes later to shop for a gallon of milk.

The opening statements were a sweeping — and at times heart-wrenching — attempt at justice on the same day that several survivors recounted frightening ordeals to the jury.

“I started screaming out for somebody to help us,” said Karen Rand McWatters, who lost a leg. She recalled that after the explosion she leaned toward her friend, Krystle Marie Campbell, who softly said that her legs hurt. “Her hand went limp in mine, and she never spoke again after that,” McWatters testified.

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“I remember thinking, this is it, I’m going to die, I’m not going to make it,” said Sydney Corcoran, who was 17 when she and her mother were injured in the bombings. “I just felt so cold.”

The long-awaited trial officially began Wednesday after two months of jury selection and nearly two years of legal challenges. Tsarnaev’s lawyers have repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought to have the trial moved outside Boston.

Scores of spectators passed through security at the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse in South Boston Wednesday to view the proceedings, as did several survivors and family members of the victims.

Those killed in the bombings were Campbell, a 29-year-old from Medford who died from the first blast; Martin Richard, an 8-year-old from Dorchester; and Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China. Lu and Richard were killed by the second bomb, the one planted by Tsarnaev.

Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb told jurors that Tsarnaev stood with his backpack outside the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street for nearly four minutes, while several children played in front of him, before he slipped off the bag and walked away.

“He pretended to be a spectator, but he had murder in his heart,” Weinreb said.

He provided graphic details of the victims’ last moments, saying Richard “bled to death on the sidewalk,” Lu had the “inside of her stomach pouring out,” and Campbell was left with “gaping holes” in her body.

He later detailed Tsarnaev’s actions less than a half-hour after the bombing: He was at a Whole Foods store in Cambridge, shopping for milk.

“The defendant pretended nothing had happened,” Weinreb said.

The prosecutor also gave new details in death of Sean Collier, an MIT police officer who was fatally shot while sitting in his cruiser later that week.

Stephen Silva, a friend of Tsarnaev’s, provided him with the 9mm Ruger pistol that was used to kill Collier, Weinreb said. Silva, who went to high school in Cambridge with Tsarnaev, will testify at the trial that he gave the gun to him, Weinreb said.

Weinreb said Collier was shot six times: twice in the side of the head, once between the eyes, and three times in the right hand.

An MIT grad student riding by on a bike saw the two men standing by the police cruiser. Another person heard six shots fired, the prosecutor said.

Surveillance video showed the brothers walk around the corner to the cruiser and open the door. But it wasn’t clear from the video which brother fired the Ruger, the prosecutor said.

Weinreb said investigators also found bloody gloves in Tsarnaev’s Honda Civic that had DNA matching Collier’s.

He said that Tsarnaev and his brother carried out the bombings as retribution for US military involvement in Muslim lands, that he and his brother were inspired by Al Qaeda, and that they learned to build the bombs by reading an Al Qaeda-sponsored online publication.

“He had a side to him he kept hidden even from his closest friends,” Weinreb said.

Jurors will never hear from Tsarnaev’s accomplice, his older brother, Tamerlan, Weinreb said, “because the defendant killed him” by running him over while attempting to get away from police during a shootout in Watertown. But Weinreb called the brothers equal partners. “They agreed to commit these crimes together, and they carried them out together,” he said.

When the prosecution was finished, Clarke told jurors that she would not “sidestep [Dzhokhar’s] responsibility for his actions,” saying “the circumstances that bring us here today still are difficult to grasp, they are incomprehensible, they are inexcusable.”

But she sought to place greater blame on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, saying he had grown extreme in his religious beliefs and had ensnared a loyal younger brother into his plot.

It was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, seven years older than her client, who planned the attacks and bought the pressure cookers and the explosives used to make the bombs and the backpacks to carry them, Clarke insisted. It was Tamerlan Tsarnaev who killed Collier, she said.

“It was Tamerlan Tsarnaev who self-radicalized . . . it was [Dzhokhar] who followed him,” she told jurors. “Unfortunately, and tragically, [Dzhokhar] was brought into his brother’s passion, and his plan, and that led the way to Boylston Street.”

Tsarnaev faces 30 charges, 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty. If he is convicted, the same jury will decide in a second phase of the trial whether he should be sentenced to death, though defense lawyers will be able to cite factors they say show he is more deserving of life in prison.

Defense lawyers did not question the victims who testified Wednesday.

Jurors also heard from witnesses who described the tradition of the Boston Marathon.

“It’s a chance to come outdoors in the springtime, a chance for them to cheer a little bit,” Thomas Grilk, the head of the Boston Athletic Association, as he described photographs of the finish line, and the crowds of spectators there, saying, “This is as dense as it gets.”

But the tradition was shattered that day.

Shane O’Hara, the manager of Marathon Sports, a store at the finish line where Tamerlan Tsarnaev dropped the first of the two bombs, recalled hearing something that sounded like a cannon. The smell of gunpowder. A cloud of dust. He recounted his scramble to use anything in the store to tie to victims’ wounds to stop the bleeding.

“I remember being thrown back, hoisted into the air and thrown back,” said Rebekah Gregory, of Texas, who was watching a friend finish the race. She desperately searched for her 5-year-old son, Noah, who was screaming, “mommy, mommy, mommy.”

“I saw the terror on everyone’s faces,” she said.

Just hours after she testified Gregory posted a letter to Tsarnaev, saying “TODAY ... I looked at you right in the face . . . and realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. And today I realized that sitting across from you was somehow the crazy kind of step forward that I needed all along.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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