Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have grown up in Cambridge, but he was shaped by parents who clung to their patriarchal culture from the North Caucasus region of Russia, and who instilled in their children a reverence for the older males in the family, according to a historian who testified in Tsarnaev’s death-penalty trial Tuesday.
“In each family, the father is all powerful and the eldest brother has tremendous power,” said Michael Reynolds, an associate professor in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. “And when the father can no longer fulfill his role, the elder brother rules the family.” That view supports defense arguments that Tsarnaev felt pressure to follow the lead of his older brother, Tamerlan, and his jihadist views.
But federal prosecutor William Weinreb, during a blistering cross-examination of the professor, challenged the idea that Tsarnaev, the youngest of four children, was shaped by family culture to adopt a traditional obedient role.
Weinreb said Tsarnaev’s parents behaved like rule-bending mavericks, and in fact, violated their respective parents’ wishes when they married each other despite being from different ethnic groups. Tsarnaev’s father is Chechen and his mother Avar.
As the jury looked on, Weinreb also confronted Reynolds with an article he wrote about the Tsarnaevs and their Chechen background that seemed to contradict his testimony. In the article, written about a month after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Reynolds wrote that the Chechen culture had changed dramatically in recent decades, and that the “cult of the elders” had “declined precipitously.”
“I’m not saying culture dictates the behavior of a person, but it can play a role,” Reynolds said later, summing up his view in later testimony.
The professor was one of seven witnesses who took the stand Tuesday, each contributing to the defense team’s narrative as to why jurors should spare their client’s life. The defense has called witnesses to humanize the 21-year-old Tsarnaev, explain his difficult family background, and show that he was under the influence of his older brother, Tamerlan.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces the possibility of the death penalty after his conviction last month for helping commit the bombing at the Marathon finish line that killed three and injured 260 others.
As part of the penalty phase of the trial, which may conclude in about a week, prosecutors have portrayed him as a pathological figure who voluntarily joined his brother in a violent jihadist mission. Prosecutors have said Tsarnaev has never shown remorse.
However, defense attorneys have argued that the Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduate was a troubled young man spiraling into despair and academic failure, particularly after his parents, recently divorced, returned to the North Caucasus region of Russia in 2012 soon after he started college.
Though Tsarnaev was a full-time student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and living in a dorm, the defense attorneys say, he came under the religious and political sway of his older brother, especially in the winter months of 2013 as their bombing plan started to take shape.
Among the witnesses who testified Tuesday was a psychiatrist who treated Tsarnaev’s father for post-traumatic stress disorder, allegedly due to torture and persecution while in Russia; a video store owner and family friend who was troubled by Tsarnaev’s mother’s turn to radical Islam; three people who knew Tsarnaev in high school and spoke glowingly about him; and a former roommate of his brother’s wife, Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, who testified about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s verbally abusive and physically threatening manner.
Testimony from the roommate, Amanda Ransom, reinforced the defense assertion that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, like his mother, had a swift conversion to Islam, and that Tamerlan — who was 26 when he died after a shootout with police in Watertown — tried to dominate many around him, including his wife and younger brother.
Ransom, who lived with Tsarnaeva when they were both students at Suffolk University, testified she once overheard her roommate crying, and later learned that it was because Tamerlan told her after sex that he had AIDS, then later told her it was a joke.
She also testified about another encounter when she saw Tamerlan Tsarnaev strike a man after he made a remark to his then-girlfriend. Tsarnaev, a former Golden Gloves championship boxer, punched the man in the chest and knocked him “out on the ground” before walking away, Ransom said.
Ransom testified that she suspected Tsarnaeva was being “emotionally abused” by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and that Ransom was afraid of him after witnessing a loud, possibly violent argument between the couple.
The defense has argued that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s outsized influence in the family was due largely to the cultural norms of his heritage and the troubles of his father, who suffered from mental illness.
Dr. Alexander Niss, a psychiatrist who treated the father in Boston from 2003 to 2005, testified that Anzor Tsarnaev suffered from a wide variety of mental ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures, anxiety, auditory hallucinations, and paranoia, and was placed on a host of psychotropic medications.
The father could not tolerate light, was unable to work, and paid frequent visits to the emergency room, Niss said.
Anzor Tsarnaev told the doctor that he, an ethnic Chechen, had been a victim of political persecution by the Russian government, and had been tortured.
Reynolds, the Princeton professor, also outlined the Tsarnaev family’s ancestry as oppressed Chechens in Russia.
He also spoke about two recent wars for independence from Russia, one in 1994 and one in 1999, which gradually turned the Chechen society’s once-secular mission for independence into one led by jihadist warriors. He said the Chechen cause became “very much intertwined with international jihad.”
Under questioning by defense attorney David Bruck, Reynolds said young people seeking to learn more about their Chechen roots will probably stumble on material about extreme Islam and jihad.
Referring to some videos found in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s laptop, Reynolds said they reflect “young men standing for something other than themselves.”
Prosecutor Weinreb, while cross-examining Reynolds, reiterated that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while in college, was his own man, routinely smoking and selling pot and drinking alcohol despite his older brother’s open disapproval.
The prosecutor suggested that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not a follower, but a risk-taking partner in the terrorist act on Boylston Street who learned to keep his growing political and religious beliefs a secret from his old friends.
Two friends from high school, and his wrestling coach, testified that they cannot reconcile their image of Tsarnaev, the school’s former wrestling team captain, with his conviction as the Boston Marathon bomber.
“I honestly never could imagine he would do something like this,” said his former wrestling teammate Henry Alvarez.