Defense lawyers in the death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spent Tuesday focusing their case on the domineering influence of Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, and suggested that their client was not the only vulnerable college student who fell under his sway.
Another target, they suggested, was Tamerlan’s wife.
The name of Katherine (Russell) Tsarnaeva — who dropped out of Suffolk University, converted to Islam, married Tamerlan in a mosque, and had a baby with him — has emerged with regularity this week as the defense began trying to persuade jurors to impose a life sentence without parole for Tsarnaev, rather than the death penalty.
On Tuesday, Mark Spencer, a forensics specialist and one of seven witnesses for the day, showed jurors Skype messages exchanged between the couple during the six months in 2012 that Tamerlan was in southern Russia, while she was in Cambridge with their baby.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev frequently sent pictures and articles with Islamic-themed political messages, echoing testimony from Monday that showed he sometimes sent similar material to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan’s wife. In 2012, her computer, according the defense, shows searches for the question, “If your husband becomes a Shahid what are the rewards for you?” Shahid is an Arabic word for martyr.
The defense may be highlighting the religious conversion of Katherine Tsarnaeva to show that Tamerlan had an outsized influence not just on his brother but also on her, a legal analyst said. “It’s a way to show this can happen even to an all-American girl with none of the difficult family stuff,” said Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor in Boston.
In court Tsarnaev, 21, exhibited the same behavior he has over the last eight weeks, looking straight ahead and not at witnesses as they testify. The jury convicted him of 30 counts related to the Marathon bombing, the killing of an MIT police officer, and a shootout with police; the same jury must now decide his sentence. The defense has suggested that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization led to the bombing and that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a follower of his brother’s plan, and less culpable.
On Tuesday, the defense focused such little attention on their client — and so much on his older brother and his transformation into a jihadist — that it almost seemed that Tamerlan was the one on trial. He was killed in a shootout with police in Watertown days after the Marathon bombing.
From several witnesses, the jury heard that the older brother was a once-talented boxer who won a regional Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell, but who lost interest in the sport when he was denied the opportunity to compete in a national competition due to his lack of American citizenship.
One of his former boxing coaches, John Curran, said he had little contact with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, though saw him a couple times at a Somerville boxing club. The coach recalled that he “looked like a puppy following his brother.”
Jurors also saw a video taken at an Allston boxing and martial arts facility, Wai Kru, on April 12, 2013, three days before the bombing. In it, Tamerlan Tsarnaev enters with his brother and a friend, Magomed Dolakov.
In the video, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dolakov hang back, while Tamerlan works out.
In subsequent testimony, jurors heard about three interviews that Dolakov later gave to the FBI when the agency learned he had been with the Tsarnaev brothers before the bombing. In those interviews, Dolakov spoke about the older brother’s growing radicalization and how on that April visit to the gym, “Jahar was very quiet and didn’t say much.”
Dolakov’s statements, which were documented in an FBI form, were read to jurors by a paralegal from the public defender’s office on Tuesday. Defense lawyers had informed the judge that they could no longer locate Dolakov to testify, according to a transcript of a dialogue between the lawyers and the judge.
According to the transcript, the defense had also intended to call a witness, Viskhan Vakhabov, who reportedly received a phone call from Tamerlan Tsarnaev while he and his brother were trying to flee the area on April 18, 2013. Jurors were also read an FBI report of an interview with Vakhabov in which he talked about witnessing Tamerlan’s personality change.
The judge told jurors Vakhabov has told lawyers he will not testify and if forced to take the stand, he would cite his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Some other defense witnesses have said they appeared only because they were subpoenaed.
According to the court transcript, prosecutor William Weinreb suggested Vakhabov was unreliable but might have other information, saying, “I think it’s undisputed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev contacted him on April 18th, I believe, between the time that Officer [Sean] Collier was murdered and the time that Dun Meng [was] carjacked.”
That phone call and other testimony have raised the prospect that others may have known about the plot or assisted the brothers, including Vakhabov and Katherine Tsarnaeva. When asked whether she might still face charges, the FBI referred questions to the US attorney’s office, which said Tuesday the office does not confirm or deny the targets of any investigation.
Still, the defense has used every opportunity to elicit more detail about Katherine Tsarnaeva and her background, as well as her response to the bombing.
On the day of the explosions, according to testimony on Monday, she texted with a close friend, saying in part, “a lot more people are killed every day in Syria and other places.”
Her lawyer, Amato (Bud) DeLuca, said she now lives in New Jersey with the couple’s daughter. Her mother, Judith Russell, testified Monday that her daughter is still a practicing Muslim and is healing from the trauma of the loss and circumstances of her husband’s death.
Witnesses on Tuesday who spoke of Katherine Tsarnaeva referred mostly to her demure disposition in the presence of her husband, including stepping back if he was engaged in a conversation with someone else, or preparing a meal, serving it and then leaving the room if he had a guest.
Rogerio Franca, one of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s former friends, testified Tuesday that when he first knew Tamerlan, he was a partier who smoked and drank and that he once saw him with illicit drugs. Their relationship faltered when Franca moved to Stoughton, but he ran into Tamerlan in Boston in 2012. He had changed, Franca testified.
“He looked different. Big beard. Dressed in white,’’ Franca recalled. Standing next to him, with her head covered, was Tsarnaev’s wife, he said.
The conversation was brief. “You are not Muslim yet?” Franca, who is Catholic, recalled being asked. “I said, ‘No.’”
He testified that he was surprised by the question.
“I didn’t think he could ask me such a thing,’’ Franca said.