Mother of Phillipos makes a plea for leniency
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
A federal jury on Tuesday convicted Robel Phillipos, a friend of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, of two counts of lying to federal agents, ending deliberations that lasted some 35 hours over six days.
Phillipos now becomes the third of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s college friends convicted of crimes related to the removal of an incriminating backpack from Tsarnaev’s dorm room days after the deadly explosions.
The three cases are a prelude to the long-awaited trial of Tsarnaev, which is scheduled to start in January. Tsarnaev, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted, is accused, along with his older brother, of killing three and injuring 260 others by setting off two homemade bombs at the Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013.
Phillipos, 21, was stoic as the jury rendered the guilty verdict. The former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student now faces a maximum of eight years on each count, though legal specialists say he is likely to receive much less. His lawyers say they plan to appeal the verdict.
At a news conference Tuesday, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said the conviction sends an important message about a singular tragedy for the city.
“He lied to agents when he could have helped. He concealed when he could have assisted. It is a crime to lie to law enforcement agents, and that is why Robel Phillipos was charged and why the jury found him guilty today,” Ortiz said.
In the cases against Phillipos and the two others, prosecutors revealed no evidence suggesting Tsarnaev’s friends knew about the bombing. What emerged, however, was insight into the early stages of the FBI probe, and the mentality of Tsarnaev’s tight circle of friends, whose rash decisions one night have had lifelong consequences for each of them.
Phillipos’s mother, Genet Bekele, a domestic violence specialist for the state, said in an interview that her son was “extremely sad” about the verdict. Bekele said her son was caught in a bad situation and is a young man with a good heart.
“My son has nothing to do with this tragedy,” Bekele said of her only child. “This can be anybody’s son — anybody’s family.”
Now, Bekele said, she hopes that the judge will show compassion. Phillipos is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 29.
“My son is an extremely gentle and peaceful person,” she said. “I hope the judge sees that.”
The lengthy jury deliberations had led the defendant’s supporters to wonder whether the jury was deadlocked.
During the trial that began three weeks ago, defense lawyers Derege Demissie and Susan Church had argued that Phillipos had smoked so much marijuana on April 18, 2013 that he had a foggy memory of going with Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov to Tsarnaev’s dorm room that night. They went hours after the FBI released photos of the bombing suspects.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both from Kazakhstan, have been convicted of taking the incriminating backpack, which contained emptied fireworks, and disposing of it at their off-campus apartment.
Phillipos was not charged with taking the items, but with lying to agents about being with the pair and observing what they did.
One juror, who asked to remain anonymous, said the jury was split at times, but ultimately rejected the idea that Phillipos was too high to remember his actions. She said the panel was also persuaded by a statement that Phillipos signed in front of an FBI agent on April 26, 2013, confessing that he had been in Tsarnaev’s room and saw his friends take the backpack. At trial, the defense argued that the statement reflected a false confession coerced by a veteran agent.
The juror said the group passionately debated a range of subjects, including their own marijuana use and Phillipos’s youthfulness.
“There was a lot of argument but finally at the end we all reached the same unanimous conclusion,” the juror said. To convict, jurors had to review nine false statements that Phillipos allegedly made during two interviews in April 2013. Two of the statements were made on April 20, and seven on April 25.
If the panel found that Phillipos made at least one false statement on a given day, he was convicted of the count associated with that day.
Prosecutors Stephanie Siegmann and John Capin ultimately persuaded jurors that Phillipos was guilty of more than half of the alleged false statements in the indictment: two on April 20 related to denying being in Tsarnaev’s room, and three out of seven on April 25 related to denying that he later knew that a backpack had been taken.
Based on their verdict, however, jurors appeared to believe that Phillipos may have been telling the truth when he said that he did not see the backpack being taken or know that Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov were getting rid of it.
Phillipos’s lawyers say among the issues they will argue on appeal is that the false statements were not “material” to the FBI probe. Church, the defense lawyer, said by April 20, the two Kazakhstan students had already told the FBI that they had thrown the backpack in a dumpster. Agents ultimately recovered the backpack.
The jury also found that the false statements “involved a terrorism investigation,” a finding that affects Phillipos’s sentence. Typically, someone guilty of one count of lying faces a maximum of five years, but the upper limit stretches to eight years if the statement relates to a terrorism probe.
Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor now with McDermott Will & Emery and not involved in this case, said he anticipates Phillipos will be given some prison time, though he predicts a sentence closer to the “two- or three-year” range.
Phillipos has been free on bail during the trial, which also suggests he is not viewed as a dangerous criminal who is a flight risk, Pearlstein said.
The juror who spoke with the Globe said the panel focused on the evidence, and the horrors of the bombing did not influence their deliberations. Referring to Phillipos and the bombing, she said, “He wasn’t there. He wasn’t part of it.”
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