The mother of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow testified Monday that her family opposed Katherine Russell’s relationship with him but could only watch as the ties between them deepened to include conversion to Islam, a child, and then marriage.
Judith Russell testified in the death penalty trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s younger brother, as defense lawyers began their effort to convince a jury that he should get life in prison without parole, rather than death for the Boston Marathon terror bombing.
Russell was among a wave of witnesses called by the defense who testified Monday about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his commitment to Islam and strong personality. None of the witnesses talked in any lengthy fashion about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The focus on Tamerlan Tsarnaev came after the defense said in its opening statement that Tamerlan had been the leader in the bomb plot and Dzhokhar was a follower.
Judith Russell said her daughter was a sophomore at Suffolk University in Boston when she met Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a relationship the family opposed because he focused only on his prospective boxing career, cheated on her, and committed an act of domestic violence against her.
But Russell said her daughter would not listen. During her junior year, she became pregnant, left school, and married Tsarnaev shortly before their child was born. She also, at her husband’s urging, researched and then converted to Islam, Russell said.
“I wasn’t against her adopting Islam, because there’s nothing wrong with Islam,’’ said Russell, an emergency room nurse. “But I was concerned about the whole package.”
She said that her daughter and granddaughter lived with her for 10 months after the child's birth and that Tsarnaev visited on the weekends. But after nearly a year, Judith Russell said, she told the couple it was time for Tamerlan Tsarnaev to take care of his family.
Katherine Russell moved to Cambridge and was living there at the time of the bombing, which killed three and wounded more than 260 othres.
Neither Katherine Russell nor any of her family members have ever spoken before at length about the Tsarnaevs.
Judith Russell said she did not immediately draw a link between her son-in-law Tsarnaev and the bombings until several days after the attacks. She said she did not recognize him in photos of the bombers released by the FBI.
Several days after the bombing, the Tsarnaev brothers killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge, but were then confronted by police in Watertown. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in the confrontation when he was shot by police and run over by his brother. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured later the same day.
Katherine Russell called her mother’s Rhode Island home that day and spoke with a sibling. “Katie thinks Tamerlan is dead,’’ Judith Russell said she was told.
The Russells contacted the FBI, but they already knew who they were and why they were calling them, she said. The Russells were escorted to Cambridge from Rhode Island where they were reunited with their daughter and granddaughter at the Cambridge police station.
Since the bombings and the death of her husband, Judith Russell said, her daughter has remained committed to her Islamic faith and is now working. “She’s getting her life together,” the mother said. “She is healing from this experience.’’
Russell’s best friend from childhood, Gina Crawford, also testified, describing how their close friendship withered as both Tamerlan and her friend’s new faith gained in importance. She was asked by defense attorney Judy Clarke when the relationship between the two became serious.
“I knew it was pretty serious when she got pregnant,’’ Crawford said, drawing laughter from some jurors.
Crawford said she only met Tamerlan Tsarnaev once, when he came into the Starbucks where she worked to buy drinks for Katherine and himself.
“She spoke a lot about her religion, and how she thought it should be,’’ Crawford testified, adding that Katherine Tsarnaev also tried to convert her to Islam.
Crawford testified that she texted her friend on April 15, 2013, after the bombing. Katherine Russell replied by saying that she was at work with her daughter eight miles away at the time. She also replied that “Tamerlan was home in Cambridge.”
Later that day, Katherine Russell sent another text, one that Crawford found strange, where she wrote that “a lot more people are killed every day in Syria and other places. ... Innocent people.”