A childhood friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “high out of his mind” on marijuana one night and recalls nothing about going with two friends into Tsarnaev’s dorm room and seeing one of them remove incriminating evidence, his defense attorney told jurors Monday.
In opening statements, the lawyer for Robel Phillipos said that even though his client signed a confession days later admitting that he was in Tsarnaev’s dormitory room the night of April 18, 2013, he did so only under intense emotional pressure by the FBI, not because he remembered much about that night after allegedly smoking marijuana a half-dozen times that day.
“He was highly intoxicated,” his lawyer, Derege Demissie, said in a courtroom where some two dozen relatives and friends of Phillipos came to support him.
Phillipos, 20, of Cambridge, is charged with two counts of lying to investigators about his whereabouts and observations the night of April 18, 2013; prosecutors say that deprived them of critical information as their investigation into the bombing was in full force.
On April 18, the FBI broadcast photos of the two bombing suspects, and prosecutors say that Phillipos and two friends recognized Tsarnaev, then went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room, and at least two of them removed a backpack containing manipulated fireworks to try to protect their friend.
Assistant US Attorney John Capin said Phillipos, who went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with Tsarnaev, “created a fiction” about not remembering that anything was taken from Tsarnaev’s room that night.
Capin said that when two of the friends — Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both former UMass Dartmouth students from Kazakhstan — became frantic over possessing Tsarnaev’s incriminating backpack, Phillipos allegedly told them, “Do what you got to do.”
The backpack and fireworks were discarded in a dumpster behind Tazhayakov’s and Kadyrbayev’s New Bedford apartment and were later found by FBI agents in a landfill.
Tazhayakov was found guilty by jurors of obstruction of justice in July, while Kadyrbayev pleaded guilty to the same charges in August in return for a promise that prosecutors would ask for no more than a seven-year prison term. Both are scheduled to be sentenced this fall.
In a new development, Tazhayakov, who faces a maximum 25-year prison term, has agreed to testify as early as Tuesday as a government witness against Phillipos, setting the stage for the first time that a member of Tsarnaev’s tightknit group of friends testifies against another.
Prosecutor Stephanie Siegmann declined to reveal the terms of the arrangement, but typically defense lawyers would not allow a client to testify without an offer by prosecutors to reduce their sentence recommendation. Tazhayakov’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 16.
Tazhayakov’s testimony could hurt Phillipos if he contradicts the defense lawyer’s portrait of Phillipos as profoundly stoned and memory-impaired on April 18. The two were together much of that afternoon and night.
Lawyers for Phillipos have declined to say whether he will take the stand.
Though Phillipos spoke to federal agents a half-dozen times after April 18, 2013, he was charged with two counts of lying. Prosecutors say his assertion that he cannot remember much about April 18 is undermined by his apparent strong memory of other details, including taking a bus to campus from his Cambridge home in the late morning and the names of friends — some of whom will be defense witnesses — with whom he got high that day. Phillipos was not living on campus because he had taken a leave in December 2012.
His lawyer, Demissie, said Phillipos had developed an excessive, troubling attachment to marijuana. On April 18, he used a vaporizer for two hours, and joined others “fishbowling,” which refers to smoking marijuana inside a car with the windows closed to enhance the high, his lawyer said.
“Keep an open mind . . . and you’ll be able to unpack this case,” said Demissie, looking at the jurors. “It’s about him not remembering.”
A fourth friend of Tsarnaev has also been charged in connection with the explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. Stephen Silva, 21, of Cambridge, is charged with providing a gun that was later used by Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, to kill an MIT police officer the night of April 18, 2013.
None of Tsarnaev’s friends are accused of playing a role in the bombing. Tsarnaev’s trial is scheduled to begin in early January, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.