Metro

Michael Dukakis testifies in defense of Tsarnaev friend

The morning break in Courtroom One was just about over, and lawyers, court officers, and spectators in the trial of Robel Phillipos, a friend of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, began shuffling back to their seats.

Then down the spacious corridor overlooking Boston Harbor came the man who was the state’s three-term governor, Michael Dukakis.

Heads turned, and there was the stunning realization on Thursday that the former Democratic presidential nominee was the fifth defense witness, testifying on behalf of Phillipos, who is accused of lying to FBI agents in the bombing probe. The 80-year-old senior statesman, his full head of white hair set against a dark suit, would follow four twentysomething college students who had testified about, among other things, their pot-smoking friendship with the defendant.

Advertisement

“I’m testifying for the defense,” Dukakis said forcefully, as he entered the courtroom where jurors were soon to be re-seated.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It was the most shocking moment so far in the trial of Phillipos, who is accused of giving false statements to federal agents about where he was, and what he saw, on April 18, 2013, the day that the FBI released photos of the two alleged bombing suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The former governor’s testimony, which ultimately lasted about 15 minutes, did not provide any pivotal evidence in the case, but rather served as a powerful character witness who portrayed Phillipos as open and guileless in the midst of interrogations by the FBI.

Prosecutors assert that Phillipos repeatedly lied about being present when two University of Massachusetts Dartmouth friends took a backpack — containing emptied firework shells — from the dorm room of their friend, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and later, that Phillipos lied about overhearing the pair talk about discarding the incriminating evidence.

The defense has not contested that Phillipos was present with the pair, but say he doesn’t remember much about that night because his memory was so impaired by pot use.

They say he smoked a half-dozen times that day. They say his subsequent interviews with FBI agents do not reflect lies about that night, but the fuzzy memories of a young man who had been in the grip of a marijuana obsession.

Advertisement

Dukakis said his contact with Phillipos about this case came on April 20, 2013, when Dukakis reached out to call Phillipos.

He referred to Phillipos then as confused and upset.

The former governor, who is now a public policy professor at Northeastern University, said his family has known the Phillipos family for decades. He said his wife, Kitty, and Phillipos’s mother, Genet Bekele, an Ethiopian immigrant from Cambridge, met each other as social workers helping refugees at the International Institute in Boston. He said they have known Phillipos since he was a young boy, and he even took Phillipos to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

“We watched him grow up,” said Dukakis, as Phillipos’s mother listened on one of the nearby courtroom benches and wept.

On April 20, 2013, Dukakis testified, his wife received a phone call from Bekele, concerned that she hadn’t heard from her son for the past two days. Dukakis said he agreed to give him a call, and after the first try, Phillipos answered.

Advertisement

Dukakis said he told Phillipos that “your mother’s very concerned” and asked, “What’s happening?” Among other things, Phillipos told him that “he was questioned for five hours by the FBI.”

Defense attorney Derege Demissie asked, “Did you get the sense he was confused?” Dukakis replied, “Yes.”

Dukakis also said, “He told me he was so confused he didn’t know what he said.”

While being questioned by Demissie, Dukakis also said that at no time did Phillipos ask for help securing a lawyer, or for any other intervention. He also said he believed Phillipos would feel comfortable asking for help from Dukakis if necessary.

During cross-examination, assistant US Attorney John Capin asked Dukakis if Phillipos’s demeanor over the phone may have been related to having “lied to federal agents.”

Dukakis said he could not say the source of Phillipos’s mood, but “he was upset.”

The prosecutor later asked Dukakis if he would have pushed Phillipos to “come clean” if Phillipos had admitted lying to federal investigators.

“If he told me that — sure — but he didn’t,” Dukakis said, appearing to bristle at the prosecutor’s attempt to elicit testimony that might be seen as progovernment.

Dukakis’s appearance came on the sixth day of testimony in the case. Defense attorneys Demissie and Susan Church said the next witness on Friday is a medical expert who will testify about the impact of marijuana on memory. They will decide then whether to put Phillipos on the stand. If they do not, then closing statements are likely to begin early next week.

Phillipos — who turns 21 Saturday — is charged with two counts of lying to federal investigators, and, if convicted, faces a maximum seven-year prison term for each count.

Phillipos is not charged with knowing anything about the April 15, 2013, bombing, which killed three and injured more than 260. His childhood friend from Cambridge, Tsarnaev, faces a possible death penalty in a trial set for early next year; Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, died during a shoot-out with police shortly after the FBI photos were released.

After court adjourned, Kitty Dukakis, reached by phone, said she hoped her husband’s testimony was helpful to Phillipos. She said that even if Phillipos made some mistakes, putting him and his mother through a federal prosecution is a “tragedy.”

Outside the courtroom, Phillipos’s mother, Berkele, remained tearful as she remembered Dukakis testimony.

Dukakis said later outside court that he hopes Phillipos’s future is not derailed by this experience.

“I’m very concerned, obviously,” he said. “I think he’s got a great future ahead of him. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent guy, he’s always been law abiding. I don’t remember Robel ever getting in trouble.”

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globepatty.