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Blinded by science in the Marathon bombing trial

On Tuesday, the prosecutors who want to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death tried to blind the jury with science, putting an array of technical and forensic specialists on the witness stand. But they were blindsided by popular culture, and the defense got its first real shots in against the government since the trial started last week.

At issue are a pair of Twitter accounts that the government says belong to Tsarnaev. More specifically, the government says the tweets from those accounts demonstrate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a full-fledged jihadi, a holy warrior who bombed the Boston Marathon to find his way into paradise.

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But the defense is trying to show that the government is over-egging the cake, exaggerating the extent of Dzhokhar's radicalism. They say it was Dzhokhar's older, manipulative brother who dragged him into the plot to attack Boylston Street on Patriots Day 2013.

The defense had to stay silent for much of the first three days of testimony, as men and women who lost their legs, and a man who lost his son, gave accounts both heartfelt and heartbreaking. Defense lawyers would have looked heartless cross-examining Tsarnaev's victims.

But, in the person of FBI agent Steve Kimball, the defense found their first glimmer of light Tuesday, and pounced. The day before, Kimball had been on the stand, under direct questioning from the prosecution, introducing into evidence a series of tweets that the government contends depict Tsarnaev as an Islamic extremist.

Miriam Conrad, one of Tsarnaev's lawyers, had a gleam in her eye as she asked for Exhibit 1274 to be called up on the video screen. It was a listing of the tweets that ran under the handle of Jahar. She asked Kimball if he did any research into the image that was on that account's home page.

"No," he said.

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Did he know, she asked, that the image is actually the insignia of a Russian soccer team?

"No," he replied.

So, she asked, how did you select the 45 tweets that you presented to the jury?

"The prosecution team," Kimball said.

So, she said, you had no part?

"No."

Did you identify the source of these tweets, she asked.

"Some yes, some no."

He did identify one source being a song by Eminem. But he didn't know that "Tha Block is Hot" was from Lil Wayne. And he certainly didn't know that the "New York State of Mind" referred to a rap by Nas. Give the G-man some credit: At least he didn't say it was from Billy Joel.

She asked Kimball if he knew the tweet "I Shall Die Young" was from a Russian rap song.

He did not.

Were you aware, she continued, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted a link to that song?

"No."

The day before, the prosecution had gone to great lengths to point out one of Tsarnaev's tweets that said, "September 10th baby, you know what tomorrow is. Party at my house!" It suggested someone tasteless if not cruel, someone who celebrated 9/11.

But Conrad asked Kimball if he knew that the line was from a sketch on a Comedy Central show? He didn't.

While Conrad didn't say, it was from a segment called "Things You Should Never Yell When Entering a Room" from the Tosh.O show, which is popular with college kids who like to sit around their dorm rooms getting high. Which is precisely the picture that the defense wants the jury to imagine. Not some jihadi wannabe kneeling on a prayer mat in front of a poster of Osama bin Laden, but some stoner down at UMass Dartmouth, watching Tosh with his buds and a bowl.

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In fact, so the jury would get that picture, Conrad asked FBI Special Agent Steve Kimball if he knew what the word "cooked" meant in one of Tsarnaev's tweets.

"I assume, like, crazy?" Kimball guessed.

He guessed wrong. It means the same as baked. High. Stoned.

Conrad said that while prosecutors picked out 45 tweets from 1,100, a lot of those tweets were about girls and cars and food and sleep and homework: in short, stuff teens and college kids spend most of their time thinking about.

The defense wanted to show that the FBI was not just ignorant of the popular culture and substances consumed by young people. They wanted to show that the FBI wasn't too good on geography, either.

The day before, Kimball had testified that the image of a mosque pictured on one of Tsarnaev's Twitter homepages was from Mecca.

In fact, Conrad said, it was from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, from where Tsarnaev's family originally came.

Conrad didn't say it, but the implication was clear: If the FBI can't get this basic stuff right, why should we trust them on the big stuff?

And the big stuff, as far as the defense is concerned, is not the actual crimes themselves, the cynical bombings that killed three people and maimed 17 others, the assassination of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, the attempt to kill Watertown police officers Joe Reynolds, John MacLellan, and the others who closed in on them that night on Laurel Street.

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The defense has already admitted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did those things with his brother Tamerlan.

The big stuff, at least for the defense, is why he did it. And on Tuesday, they began the long, difficult, and maybe impossible journey of convincing the jury that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was more of a moron than a martyr. The defense believes that if they can get just one juror to believe he was the former, they just might save his life.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.