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Kevin Cullen

Dysfunctional, yes, but no excuse for Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, with the suspects' father Anzor Tsarnaev, spoke at a news conference in 2013.Musa Sadulayev/AP

So, relatives of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were holed up Friday in the Hampton Inn in Revere, dodging cameras and who knows what else, on the eve of the start of his lawyers’ Herculean task: humanizing the inhumane.

Presumably, the Tsarnaev clan, who have since moved to undisclosed lodgings outside Revere, had little time to head down to the beach for beer and pizza at Bill Ash’s.

And presumably, Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, was not among those sneaking a peek out the window at the TV vans.

There’s a cop from Natick with a warrant in his pocket for Mama T, for a shoplifting charge she skipped out on after she — ahem — allegedly ripped off $1,600 worth of clothes from Lord & Taylor at the Natick Collection a couple of years ago.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death penalty trial has seen just about everything. But watching Mama T get pinched on an old warrant would take the cake.

It might even help the defense, showing Zubeidat in all her raving glory, as Tsarnaev’s lawyers try to give jurors a reason, any reason, not to kill him. It would certainly invigorate the conspiracy theory nutjobs, including not a few members of the extended Tsarnaev clan, who contend that this is all some government plot to frame the Tsarnaevs for everything from the Marathon bombing to the Lindbergh kidnapping.

My guess is if you polled the jurors on Thursday, when the prosecution finished its presentation of aggravating factors, they would have been measuring Tsarnaev for a gurney at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.

But this trial is not over, and Monday will be a different story, a whole different vibe. Tsarnaev’s lawyers — Judy Clarke, David Bruck, Miriam Conrad, Tim Watkins, and Bill Fick — have mostly played rope-a-dope so far, absorbing one shot after another, conserving their energy. They did not cross-examine Tsarnaev’s victims, silently and respectfully acknowledging their loss. They only put on four witnesses to the prosecution’s 92 during the guilt phase of the trial.


But the penalty phase of the trial is what they have been waiting for. And, unlike the prosecution, they don’t have to win everybody over. They only need one, one of the 12 jurors, to say no to the death penalty, either because that juror believes there is something in Tsarnaev’s life or character that mitigates what he did, or because that juror thinks death is too easy for him.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was just short of his 20th birthday when he and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, bombed the Boston Marathon, when they murdered Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Martin Richard on Boylston Street, when they took the limbs of 17 people, when they hurt 240 others, when they murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier.

Over the coming weeks, we will hear lots of talk about how teenage boys’ brains aren’t completely formed, that they are susceptible to following others and making bad decisions. Call me hard-hearted, but I think putting a bomb down in back of a bunch of kids is more than a bad decision.

And for every expert witness the defense puts up, the prosecution can rebut them with their own expert claims.

More intriguing, then, is how the dysfunction of the Tsarnaev family might emerge as the best chance to save Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life.


Even more intriguing is whether a bunch of jurors sitting in the Joe Moakley courthouse on the waterfront will give two hoots about Josef Stalin’s persecution of Chechens, the forced exodus in the middle of 20th century that put the Tsarnaevs on a path that eventually brought them to the third-floor apartment of a run-down three-decker on Norfolk Street in Cambridge.

As my colleagues Patty Wen, David Filipov, and Sally Jacobs discovered in the months they spent looking into the Tsarnaev family saga after the attack on the Boston Marathon in 2013, there is little to suggest the Tsarnaevs deserved the refugee status that brought them to the United States in the first place. They were, essentially, economic migrants.

For myriad reasons, the family did not flourish here. Every one of them had run-ins with law enforcement. They availed of the sort of public assistance they could only dream of in their homeland. They lived in Cambridge, one of the most welcoming, tolerant corners of the world.

Tamerlan nursed grudges and heard voices. Dzhokhar was the captain of his high school wrestling team and in his spare time smoked and sold pot. The two sisters had babies and failed marriages. The mother encouraged Tamerlan to embrace Islam, and he embraced a form that encouraged him to kill innocent people. Dzhokhar would embrace the same thing. And the whole family imploded, the parents divorcing and moving back to Russia, the four kids scattered.

How this translates to somehow explaining why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev followed his brother down Boylston Street with a pressure-cooker bomb in his backpack is anyone’s guess. How this might explain why he and his brother snuck up on Sean Collier and murdered him in cold blood is something I can’t wait to hear.


Judy Clarke, a good lawyer and a decent person, reminded the jurors that they swore an oath to keep an open mind, and I’m guessing those jurors meant it when they said it. But I can’t help thinking, having sat through this trial, that the best chance Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has to dodge death row is not because he grew up in a nutty household where a persecution complex was as readily available as a box of Cheerios.

His best chance, at this point, is that someone on that jury comes to the conclusion that his spending the next half century or more in the hellhole that is the Supermax in Colorado is worse than death.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.