A lawyer for Robel Phillipos, who is a friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and who is accused of lying to the FBI, urged jurors to acquit his client, saying the government failed to prove Phillipos “knowingly and intentionally” made false statements that were “material” or undermined the Marathon bombing probe.
Derege Demissie said in closing arguments in US District Court Tuesday that if Phillipos erred, it was in trying to answer investigators’ questions about events he could not recall, because his memory was clouded from excessive marijuana smoking.
But Assistant US Attorney Stephanie Siegmann told jurors Phillipos knowingly tried to deceive FBI agents engaged in a terrorism probe and the deception hampered an investigation that was still full of unknowns and potential dangers.
“This case is about someone who lied, not about someone who didn’t remember,” Siegmann said.
She pointed out that the FBI interviewed Phillipos five times before he ultimately admitted, in a signed FBI statement on April 26, 2013, that he entered Tsarnaev’s UMass-Dartmouth dorm room with Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, on April 18, 2013, hours after officials released photos of the bombing suspects.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both former UMass-Dartmouth students originally from Kazakhstan, have since been convicted of obstruction of justice for taking Tsarnaev’s backpack, which contained emptied fireworks, and later discarding the items in a dumpster behind their off-campus apartment. Both are awaiting sentencing.
Phillipos, 21, is accused of repeatedly lying about his whereabouts that night and being with the friends when the backpack was taken.
Discussing the signed FBI statement, made on April 26 in an FBI office in Boston, the prosecutor said Phillipos was read his rights but chose to talk without a lawyer present. She said that, after several hours, he confessed to the agents about seeing his friends take the backpack, and described – fairly accurately – the size and number of fireworks inside.
But defense attorney Demissie said that confession was “manufactured” by a seasoned FBI agent who persuaded a frightened Phillipos to admit to observations that he never made. Demissie suggested that FBI agents, having already received descriptions of the fireworks days earlier from the two Kazakhstan students, simply inserted those details into Phillipos’s statement.
Demissie said Phillipos was threatened with arrest during the lengthy closed-door interview on April 26 and was told to use unorthodox “visualization” techniques when he could not recall some events. Eventually, he said, Phillipos decided the only way out of the room was to “sign a statement.”
Demissie also said Phillipos never once resisted answering questions by the FBI and came enthusiastically to meetings without a lawyer.
He also repeatedly told jurors that the government has wrongly portrayed Phillipos as a “criminal mastermind” who came up with complex lies.
He said that Phillipos has repeatedly shown through cell and text phone records an eagerness to cooperate with FBI agents, even referring to his interrogations in one text as enjoyable. Demissie said that once Phillipos actually called a federal agent who was tardy for their scheduled meeting.
“What criminal master-mind says [to the FBI]. . . ‘You’re late!’ ” Demissie said, eliciting chuckles from some jurors.
The 12-member jury was dismissed Tuesday after deliberating for about two hours. Jurors are scheduled to continue deliberations Wednesday.
The Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School graduate and former UMass-Dartmouth student is charged with two counts of lying, one related to an interrogation on April 20, 2013, and another related to an interview five days later. The jury must also review nine allegedly false statements made over those two days and decide whether Phillipos is guilty or not guilty of each one.
To be convicted of lying on either of those two days, Phillipos only needs to be found guilty of making a false statement at least once that day.
Lastly, if the jury finds an instance of lying, they also must decide whether that false statement “involved a terrorism investigation.”
That final issue is designed to help the judge in sentencing. Each count of lying typically comes with a maximum five-year term, but if it involves terrorism, the maximum sentence increases to eight years.