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Former friend of Tsarnaev says he was ‘approachable’

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were seen in a photo released by the defense on Wednesday.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were seen in a photo released by the defense on Wednesday.Public Defender Office

The morning the Tsarnaev brothers engaged police in a firefight in Watertown two years ago, a defiant Tamerlan Tsarnaev fought the paramedics tending to him in an ambulance after he had been shot and run over, growling at them, resisting their care, and trying to undo his restraining straps.

When his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was in an ambulance roughly 15 hours later, paramedics found a compliant, passive patient, who willingly gave his birth date and volunteered that he was allergic only to cats, according to testimony in his death penalty trial Wednesday.

Focusing heavily on the character of the younger Tsarnaev for the first time, his lawyers used the contrasting descriptions of the brothers’ behavior to bolster their assertions that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the aggressive mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombing — and that his brother was a misguided follower, who did what he was asked.

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The first question the younger Tsarnaev had when he arrived at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was where his brother was, according to testimony Wednesday.

The testimony set the stage for other witnesses pivotal in the defense team’s attempts to paint Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a sympathetic, human figure who should be held responsible for his actions, but not sent to death.

Jurors — who will ultimately decide whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is sentenced to death or life in prison — heard on Wednesday from grade school teachers who testified about his personality as a young boy, while childhood photos were displayed. They also heard from a middle school teacher who testified that Tsarnaev had so much potential, she had no idea why his grades began to drop.

A college friend, a 21-year-old from Cambridge, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev grew up, told jurors that he had been the respectful one of his group of friends, who never showed a radical ideology, and who tried not to take life so seriously.

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“I really miss the person that I knew, he was a good friend,” Alexa Guevara said, fighting back tears, when she was asked why she was so emotional.

She also called him “corny,” and described a teen who liked to order cheesy bread and chocolate lava cakes from Domino’s, who argued with friends over hip-hop rappers, insisting Kendrick Lamar was the best performer.

She continuously eyed Tsarnaev, who glanced at her for a moment, but did not fulfill her apparent desire for eye contact. As he has throughout the trial, Tsarnaev sat staring straight ahead, showing no emotion.

A former friend from college, Tiarrah Dottin, who also went to high school with Tsarnaev, grew tearful as she looked at a photo of them together at a Providence nightclub several years ago, after a night partying. She testified that she always thought Tsarnaev looked like his older sister, Ailina.

“He was loyal,” she told the jury.

An undated photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
An undated photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.Public Defender Office

Under questioning by Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb, Dottin acknowledged, however, that Tsarnaev was never one to be pushed around, he knew how to say no, and she had not known he had been watching pro-jihadi videos and reading lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda propagandist. Weinreb has said that Tsarnaev and his older brother were equal partners in the attacks, and were inspired by Al Qaeda.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died after the confrontation with police in Watertown. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted earlier this month of 30 charges related to the Marathon bombing, the shooting of an MIT police officer, and the firefight in Watertown.

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The same jury that convicted him must now decide in a separate phase of the trial whether he should be sentenced to death — 17 of the 30 counts he was convicted of allow for capital punishment.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers have sought to humanize their client while demonizing his older brother, who they say was the mastermind of the bombing who influenced his younger brother.

Over the last three days, they seem to have put Tamerlan Tsarnaev on trial.

The defense team has submitted reports from congressional and executive branch investigations showing that Russian intelligence authorities notified the FBI and the CIA on separate occasions in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, had become radicalized, and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev wanted to return to Russia to join the mujahideen, or holy warriors.

The FBI responded that it had conducted an investigation and found no terrorist ties, but the FBI did not follow up.

By January, 2012, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had traveled to Dagestan, in southern Russia, where his family was from.

A paralegal for the defense team read reports from an FBI interview with a relative of Tsarnaev in Dagestan. That relative could not testify in the trial, but told the FBI in an interview in June 2013 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had started to ask him and other relatives during that visit about Islam, and it became clear that “Tamerlan came to Russia to fight jihad in the streets,” according to the interview with Magomed Kartashov. He described himself as a second cousin of Tsarnaev’s mother.

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Kartashov said he had last seen Tamerlan Tsarnaev when he was about 12 years old, before coming to the United States, but “now he was a big guy.”

Kartashov’s brother invited them over for dinner, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had asked whether they had gone “into the forest” searching for jihad.

Kartashov told him, according to the FBI interview, that his views were too radical, and “I told him to stop or he won’t make it to the next tree.”

“You have convinced my head, but my heart still wants to do something,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev had told Kartashov, according to the FBI interview.

Another undated photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Another undated photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.Public Defender Office

Several Tsarnaev relatives from Russia are expected to testify for the defense, likely Thursday. Federal prosecutors requested that they testify soon so that they can return to Russia, saying that housing and protecting them is costly.

The nature of their testimony remains unclear. Relatives who have spoken on the record since the bombing have maintained that both brothers are innocent, but the defense team so far has focused on two themes: Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia in 2012 and his radicalization, and painting a portrait of a young, impressionable Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who was just 8 years old when his family left a politically volatile region and settled in the United States.

Catheryn Charner-Laird, principal of The Cambridgeport School, taught the younger Tsarnaev when he arrived in the country as a third-grader, when he was 9 years old. He struggled to learn English, but “he tried really hard,” she testified Wednesday. “He wouldn’t know exactly what to do, but would always do the right thing.”

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She and other former teachers described Tsarnaev as a fun-loving soccer player who easily made friends.

Rebecca Norris taught Tsarnaev math and science when he started at the Community Charter School of Cambridge. She was his adviser, and her husband coached his soccer team. She thought he could do well until he left the school in the ninth grade. Administrators had him return home because he was not wearing the proper uniform, and his mother was so angry she pulled him out of the school.

Norris, who thought she was close with the family, and could speak Russian, asked Tsarnaev if she could call his mother, and he told her not to.

“I didn’t want him to go, and I didn’t think he wanted to go,” she testified.

Years later, she saw him on a Cambridge street, and he told her he was doing well, but that his math grades had been dropping, and she told him, “Oh [Dzhokhar], you’re so much better than that.”

“There’s only ever a handful of them, but you don’t forget them,” she said, before stepping down from the witness the stand and trying to catch Tsarnaev’s eye.

He did not look back.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobePatty.

Correction: The name of defense witness Alexa Guevara was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.