At Marathon bombing trial, Tsarnaev appears detached

Dressed in a dark blazer with an open-collared shirt, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared during the first day of testimony in his trial as he did during jury selection: a bearded young man with a flat demeanor, his head often slanted to one side, seemingly half-listening, half-distracted.

The 21-year-old defendant has been virtually silent in all of his court appearances, so there is only his physical appearance — his expressions, his gestures, his posture — to decode what might be going on in his head. So far, the enigmatic former high school wrestling team captain from Cambridge has been consistent: quiet and low-key, leaning back in his chair, conversing generally only when one of his lawyers initiates a chat.

Judging his demeanor is also complicated by the unknown effect of nearly two years in solitary confinement, and the multiple gunshot injuries he sustained that have paralyzed the left side of his face, according to one of his lawyers.


Earlier this week, one of his lawyers urged caution in trying to interpret Tsarnaev’s appearance. The lawyer complained to US District Court Judge George O’Toole that a top FBI official once publicly characterized Tsarnaev as wearing a smirk, when Tsarnaev suffers from long-term nerve damage to his left cheek that profoundly affects his face.

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His current demeanor, in some ways, is also similar to when he was simply a failing student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who smoked — and dealt — copious amounts of marijuana and experimented with psychedelic drugs.

A close friend and former classmate said Tsarnaev never gave off an alert look in the classes that they shared, even back when he was a popular teenager who got decent grades in high school.

“He was always laid back in his chair,” recalled the friend, who asked that his name not be published for fear that any association with the Tsarnaev case could hurt his future. “He wasn’t one to take too many notes.”

In the courtroom, Tsarnaev and his lawyers sit with their backs to spectators most of the time; however, the defendant’s face is sometimes visible to those viewing the proceedings in a separate courtroom on a video feed. During his arraignment in the summer of 2013, Tsarnaev’s face was more obviously swollen, his left eye noticeably droopy. One of his arms was in a sling at the time, and he walked with a stiff, strained gait.


During the two months of jury selection, a scar has been visible on Tsarnaev’s neck, and the left side of his face has appeared slightly distorted — probably the result of gunshot wounds.

In court records released in the weeks after the bombing, a Beth Israel surgeon is quoted as saying that Tsarnaev suffered multiple gunshot wounds, “the most severe of which appears to have entered through the left side inside of his mouth and exited the left face, lower face.”

His description of the bullet entering the inside of his mouth left some investigators speculating that Tsarnaev may have tried to kill himself, although no evidence has been released that suggests a suicide attempt.

The surgeon described the mouth injury as resulting from a “high-powered” gun blast, which resulted in “injuries to the middle ear, the skull base, the lateral portion of his C1 vertebrae, with significant soft-tissue injury, as well as injury to the pharynx, the mouth, and a small vascular injury that’s been treated.”

The surgeon said that Tsarnaev’s left eye was sutured shut, his jaw wired closed. He also said Tsarnaev suffered a gunshot wound that fractured the base of his skull, probably causing a concussion and brain trauma. Tsarnaev also suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his extremities, including his left hand.


On Wednesday, even during the most anguishing accounts from survivors of the bombing he initiated, the lanky defendant sat impassively, showing no outward emotion. He fiddled with his beard and occasionally massaged his hands.

‘He was always laid back in his chair. He wasn’t one to take too many notes.’

Former classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, speaking about his demeanor and mannerisms 

Each day spent in Courtroom 9 in US District Court on Boston Harbor is far more activity than Tsarnaev gets while at the Federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, where he is Inmate 95079-038. There, he is in solitary confinement under special administrative measures.

Typically inmates under these circumstances spend 23 of every 24 hours in a solitary cell. Tsarnaev’s mail, phone calls, and visits are limited to his legal team and immediate family members.

Tsarnaev can send no more than one letter a week, and only one adult may visit at a time, without any physical contact, according to court records. He can receive prescreened publications and books, and while the Devens facility allows TV and radio, the unit where Tsarnaev is housed does not have those electronic devices. He is not allowed to take part in group prayer services, the court records say.

For now, there is little indication that Tsarnaev’s day-to-day life will change during the trial. A Devens spokeswoman said that Tsarnaev is likely to continue to get picked up by federal agents in the morning and taken some 40 miles to the federal courthouse.

Tsarnaev does have an opportunity to change the public’s impression of the quiet, seemingly detached defendant who frequently rubs his beard. His defense team, which conceded his guilt on Wednesday, will have a major question to face as they fight for his life during the penalty phase of the trial: Should they put Tsarnaev on the stand to testify?

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Patricia Wen can be reached at

 Correction: Because of an editing error, a caption accompanying a version of this story which appeared in the March 5, 2013, print edition of the Globe misstated the actions of bombing victims Heather Abbott and Karen Rand McWatters. They were leaving John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse.