The consistently stoic demeanor of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev dissolved for the first time since testimony in his death-penalty trial began two months ago, as he seemed to react to his Russian aunt’s uncontrollable sobs on the witness stand with tears of his own.
In a trial filled with raw emotional moments, this one featured gray-haired Patimat Suleimanova — an older sister of Tsarnaev’s mother — breaking down as soon as she saw her 21-year-old nephew sitting at the defense table 10 feet away from her. Suleimanova, 64, began crying, then heaving, and became unable to speak. The judge, lawyers, jurors, and a Russian translator waited to see if she could regain her composure.
After three minutes, US District Court Judge George O’Toole suggested to the defense lawyers that this aunt testify later, and as she left the stand, Tsarnaev began to wipe his right eye repeatedly with a tissue. Seconds later, he used his hands to wipe his eyes again, slumped back in his wooden chair.
About an hour later, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduate showed a different emotion after another aunt and a cousin took the stand and spoke glowingly of him as an adorable and compliant boy when they knew him before the family moved to the United States. As Tsarnaev was being led away by US marshals for the lunch break, he looked back where the pair stood and blew them a kiss — the first time he has faced the spectator section of the courtroom and publicly showed any emotion.
Federal prosecutors, who say Tsarnaev is a remorseless terrorist, want the jury to sentence him to death.
The defense, so far, has devoted much of its case in the sentencing phase of the death penalty trial to highlighting the domineering role of Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan. On Monday, they used the testimony of the relatives to offer reasons why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as a shy, obedient child, might follow his brother’s lead in the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others. The brothers also killed an MIT police officer and hurled bombs and shot at police in a confrontation in Watertown several days later.
Tsarnaev’s gesture of blowing a kiss to relatives was done after jurors had left for their lunch break, but his appearance of crying was done in the presence of the jury. It was the first time he visibly displayed emotion as a result of testimony, which helps fulfill the defense’s desire to humanize him; however, it was in response to an aunt whom he never knew very well, and he has been impassive during previous weeks of gut-wrenching testimony from victims.
His emotional displays took place on a day dominated by testimony from five relatives on his mother’s side and originally from Dagestan who flew from Russia to testify. Most of them became tearful on the stand, as they seemed to try to reconcile the radical changes after the Tsarnaev family moved to the United States about 13 years ago.
The relatives each acknowledged that they had far less contact with the family in the past decade and last knew Tsarnaev when he was about 8 years old.
The relatives’ testimony shared common themes, including describing Tsarnaev as an angelic, adorable boy who brought out loving and nurturing feelings among those who knew him. Some relatives described a particularly stern aunt whose “maternal” feelings were brought out by little Tsarnaev, and she indulged him, including letting him once urinate in a sink, which triggered chuckles from some jurors.
They described young Tsarnaev as a sensitive boy, who once cried watching the “Lion King” movie. They also testified about deep worry over Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, and over Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as they began embracing extremist Islamic ideas.
“This dramatic change was very strange,” Naida Suleimanova, one of Tsarnaev’s cousins, said through a Russian translator.
In particular, these relatives recalled being stunned when Tsarnaev’s mother — after living in the United States for a number of years — started covering her head and wearing traditional black Muslim clothing. They said she used to be a vivacious, stylish dresser with little interest in religion when she, her husband, and four children lived in Kyrgyzstan and in southern Russia.
“It was a shock for me,” said Raisat Suleimanova, Naida’s sister. “She used to be such a fashionable person.”
Relatives also expressed concern about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s religious fervor, which they said was not part of their family tradition. One photo shown to jurors of the extended family in Russia includes a decorated Christmas tree, and they said they often had such a tree as part of the New Year’s celebration.
They also acknowledged the patriarchal tradition in their culture and the role of an older brother. “You always try to listen to your older brother and follow his example,” said Naida Suleimanova.
She identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s voice on an audio recording that was played to the jury. In the recording allegedly made in 2012 when he spent about six months in Dagestan, Tsarnaev was talking to another relative about establishing an Islamic government.
“I have this rage of hatred inside me,’’ Tsarnaev said in Russian, which was translated in writing for jurors. “Somehow deep down in my heart I don’t believe that the caliphate will be established in my lifetime.’’
The defense case is expected to last about another week, and lawyers have said among the witnesses they will call is an expert to talk about the impulsivity and immaturity of the young adult brain. The defense also plans to call some experts who know about politically restive southern Russia and the history of the Chechen people. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s father’s side of the family is from Chechnya.
Because one of Tsarnaev’s aunt’s appearances was cut short due to her distress, it remains unclear if she will instead testify Tuesday. That aunt housed Tamerlan Tsarnaev when he lived in Dagestan in 2012 and could have insight into his radicalization. The presence of the relatives has drawn widespread media attention. The prosecution has complained that they are here at great expense and difficulty; the relatives are being guarded by 16 FBI agents, prosecutor William Weinreb said last week in a closed-door session with the judge.
Spectators in the courtroom Monday included some victims, and a few people who were once close to the Tsarnaevs, including Joanna Herlihy, the longtime Cambridge landlord for the Tsarnaev family. Her son testified for the defense last week.
Herlihy said she does not expect to be called as a witness but wanted to hear what the Russian relatives had to say. She said she now regrets not taking more time to talk with Tamerlan Tsarnaev when he lived two floors above her on Norfolk Street in Cambridge.
“I wished I had worked harder on him,” she said.
During Monday’s testimony, defense attorney William Fick had to stop several times during his questioning of the Russian relatives, as they frequently became overcome by emotion. They testified about a once tight-knit extended family that used to share holidays together. Tsarnaev’s cousins often referred to him as a brother, following their cultural tradition that embraces that term for cousins.
At one point as Naida Suleimanova began weeping on the stand, Fick asked her why she was crying. “Because I’m seeing my brother for the first time in so many years,” she said. “It’s not easy.”