Defense attorneys for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Monday gave their first robust argument about why his life should be spared, identifying his mother — not just his older brother Tamerlan — as a major force in destabilizing the family through religious fanaticism and emotional volatility.
“She proved a destructive force in the lives of everyone around her,” attorney David Bruck said of Zubeidat Tsarnaeva in his 45-minute opening statement to jurors in the penalty phase of the trial. “She was desperate for praise and validation, and her children existed to reflect glory back to her. As her dreams in America began to crumble, Zubeidat began to turn to fundamentalist religion, and she made sure Tamerlan learned about it, too.”
Bruck made his comments as part of his plea to jurors to sentence his 21-year-old client to life in prison, rather than death. He asked them to stay focused on understanding why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — who had no previous criminal record — would follow his older brother into a violent jihadist mission at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Bruck said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s violent actions can be understood only by hearing about the family’s nomadic origins in politically restive southern Russia and about the parents’ psychological instability. Bruck said both parents, Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat, had been diagnosed with “serious mental illness;’’ his father was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, delusional disorder, and panic attacks.
In Monday’s long-anticipated defense case against the death penalty for Tsarnaev, lawyers introduced no major surprises, though a few minor ones. Among them: They identified the prison where they expect the Cambridge high school graduate to be assigned if his life is spared by the jury and suggested that they believed this facility, where high-profile convicted terrorists typically spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, is a deserved destination for him.
Bruck showed jurors aerial photos of the supermax facility in Florence, Colo., a highly isolated complex in the Rocky Mountains where someone like Tsarnaev would be “locked away and forgotten.”
He urged jurors to consider that a life sentence reduces media attention on Tsarnaev and his stature in the jihadist world.
“His legal case will be over for good. And no martyrdom,” Bruck said, often speaking in a quiet voice that many jurors and spectators had to strain to hear. “Just years and years of punishment, day after day, while he grows up to face the lonely struggle of dealing with what he did.”
Based on some pretrial motions, there had been speculation that the defense would raise Tamerlan’s possible role in a triple homicide in Waltham in 2011, as a way to show Tamerlan’s intimidating power over his younger brother. However, the killings were not mentioned in Bruck’s opening, and it is unclear whether the murders will be raised in this case.
Bruck’s opening was fairly straightforward, hitting on themes that the defense has suggested throughout the past eight weeks. He told jurors they will hear from expert witnesses to describe the struggles of ethnic groups in the North Caucasus and a scientist to talk about brain science and the tendency toward impulsivity in teenagers and young adults.
But judging by the first day of the defense case, it was clear that Tamerlan — and the Tsarnaev family as a whole — will remain the focus. In his opening, Bruck used Tamerlan’s name more than 50 times, roughly the same number of times he mentioned “Jahar,” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s nickname. Eight witnesses took the stand, nearly all of whom testified about Tamerlan’s aggressive and belligerent personality. The witnesses included a market manager, a local Islamic leader, a former Cambridge Rindge and Latin School classmate, and one of Tamerlan’s former music teachers.
A computer forensic expert, Gerald Grant, testified about roughly 20 e-mail exchanges between Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, showing that Tamerlan introduced his younger brother to religious or political videos and articles.
Tamerlan began sending those e-mails in the early months of 2012, while he was in Dagestan, a Russian region.Some were addressed jointly to Tsarnaev and Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell, who also reportedly adopted some of Tamerlan’s extreme religious views.
In some of the exchanges between the brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes off as having a warm connection to his older brother, in one message saying, “I miss you. . . I hope everything is all right. . . thanks for the video, take care of yourself.”
Russell’s acceptance of Tamerlan’s politics was clear in a text message she sent to her high school best friend on April 15, 2013, the day of the bombing. When this friend, Gina Crawford, checked to see if Russell, a home health aide, was safe, Russell replied that she and her toddler daughter had been at her job, about eight miles away. She added, “Although a lot more people are killed every day in Syria and other places.” In another text, Russell added the words, “Innocent people.”
The defense portrayed Tamerlan’s outsized influence as resulting from a vacuum created by the parents who were emotionally self-absorbed and troubled — and later absent, when they left Cambridge in 2012 to live in Dagestan, leaving behind three children in their 20s and Dzhokhar, who was about 19.
Bruck referred to an especially close relationship between Tsarnaev’s mother and her first-born son, Tamerlan, including grandiose visions of him being an Olympic boxing star, a Harvard student, a famous musician, a lawyer, or a dentist.
“Only great things lay ahead. What made this so wonderful for Zubeidat was that Tamerlan loved and adored his mother so much. That was the atmosphere of maternal delusion in which Jahar grew up. He not only had an older brother to look up to. . . but his older brother was Superman.”
Judith Russell, the mother of Katherine, told the jury that Zubeidat acted “like the queen” at a baby shower given for Katherine Russell when she was pregnant. Russell said she and others in the family disapproved of Katherine’s relationship with Tamerlan, citing his cheating on her in the past and his religious and political fanaticism. Katherine has not yet been called to testify, and it is unclear whether she will be a witness. Her lawyer earlier told the Globe that he would not allow her to testify before a grand jury without immunity.
Russell, a nurse, spoke like a mother who was helpless on the sidelines as her daughter fell under the influence of Tamerlan. She talked about her agonizing struggle to advise her daughter to stay away from Tamerlan, whose political radicalization was growing as his job prospects were diminishing, and how she did not want to alienate her daughter, who was clearly attached to him and had accepted the Islamic faith.
Russell stayed supportive, even helping raise her granddaughter in her Rhode Island home for most of the first year of the baby’s life. When Katherine later moved out with the baby to Tamerlan’s home in Cambridge, Katherine later told her mother that Tamerlan had left for Dagestan, a trip that Russell described as a “vacation” that lasted six months. Still, that didn’t change Katherine’s devotion to him.
In many ways, Judith Russell’s testimony about her daughter’s conversion echoed what Bruck said happened to his client.
Bruck said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been widely regarded in his years in Cambridge as a mild-mannered high school wrestling team captain who was popular among his friends, and that was genuine. ‘‘He was a good kid,’’ Bruck said, but Tsarnaev later succumbed to the destructive emotional forces within his family.
“Jahar was a lost teenager with very little motivation to do anything much on his own, who has been raised all of his life to take direction from the most powerful adult, by 2013, the only powerful adult in the world.”