Yvonne Abraham

Robel Phillipos made stupid mistakes that any kid could make

Robel Phillipos (center) left the Moakley Federal Courthouse on Monday.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Robel Phillipos (center) left the Moakley Federal Courthouse on Monday.

This could be my kid. Or yours.

That thought was impossible to avoid in Courtroom 1 at the Moakley Courthouse on Wednesday morning, as the trial of Robel Phillipos continued.

The tall, skinny kid in the gray suit was swept up in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. The former UMass Dartmouth student and friend of accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, is on trial for lying about where he was and what he saw on April 18, when another Tsarnaev friend, Dias Kadyrbayev, took a backpack containing incriminating evidence from Tsarnaev’s dorm room and later threw it in a dumpster.


After initially lying, Kadyrbayev and another friend, Azamat Tazhayakov, came clean about the dumped backpack the night Tsarnaev was captured. Phillipos is not accused of involvement in the bombing, or of dumping the bag. Federal prosecutors have charged him only with lying about what he saw.

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His attorneys say Phillipos did not lie – that he was so stoned that night he could not remember what happened. They say FBI agents coerced his confession.

Either way, you have to wonder: Is it absolutely necessary to bring the full force and power of the federal government down on him? What exactly is the point?

Tim Groves, principal of the King Open K-8 school in Cambridge when Phillipos attended, was among the many supporters who have packed the courtroom each day.“I would be proud to be this boy’s father,” he said. “Other kids respected him. His mother is a remarkable woman, very devoted. She raised him with good values.”

Phillipos made stupid mistakes any good kid might make. He took up marijuana with such gusto that his grades slid, his mother lost patience, and he took a semester off. He had gone back to the school April 18 to meet with officials about his problem. But he wasn’t over it, smoking copious amounts of pot in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Testifying for the prosecution, Tazhayakov did little to support the notion that Phillipos knew what the others in that room were up to. He could not recall whether Phillipos was awake or asleep when Kadyrbayev disposed of the backpack, or whether crucial conversations about the bag took place in Russian (which Phillipos does not speak), or English. He could not recall Phillipos speaking the most damning words in his now-recanted confession – that when his friends were talking about getting rid of the backpack, he said “Do what you have to do.”

That sounds more like a line out of a movie, or out of a cop’s interrogation script, than out of the mouth of a very intoxicated young man. But even if the government is right, and Phillipos lied, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. It is easy to imagine him reeling from the revelation that his friend had likely committed a terrorist attack. Drug-addled and sleep deprived, he agreed to speak to investigators repeatedly without benefit of a lawyer. An FBI agent admitted to using coercive interrogation techniques on him, going at him for hours, locking the door to the interrogation room and promising to protect him from the “wolves” — the bad cops — outside. Plenty of kids would lie in these circumstances — or confess to things that aren’t true.

It would be easier to give the FBI — which has not exactly covered itself in glory in these parts — the benefit of the doubt here if they had recorded those interrogations. But they don’t do that. It isn’t their way; it’s why distrust follows so much of their work.

Maybe the jury will take investigators at their word. Maybe they will conclude that Robel Phillipos lied. It’s easy to understand the desire to lock up anybody connected — however remotely — with a crime that changed the city forever. If they find him guilty, Phillipos faces a maximum of 16 years. It will be up to the sentencing judge to provide some semblance of proportion here.

Not just for the aching mother of Robel Phillipos, but for other mothers, too. Our imperfect boys may make big, stupid mistakes, too.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at