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Lawyer for Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow fears charges

As Marathon bombing trial nears end, questions arise about what she knew

Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, outside the Cambridge apartment where she lived with her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.EVAN MCGLINN/NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2013

An attorney for Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, the reclusive widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who conspired with his younger brother to bomb the 2013 Boston Marathon, acknowledged Wednesday that he fears his client could still be the focus of an ongoing criminal investigation into whether she had any knowledge of the terrorist plot.

Amato DeLuca, a Providence attorney, said the concern comes largely from what federal prosecutors have not done. They have not called her as a witness in the ongoing death-penalty case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, nor have they offered her immunity from prosecution if she testifies — a condition he has requested in the past.


That suggests that she could still be charged in connection with the bombing.

“That’s what concerns us,” DeLuca said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t know what the government is going to do.”

Tsarnaeva, who took the name Karima after converting to Islam when she married Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has long been an enigmatic figure in the bombing investigation. And she has become the focus of even more speculation in the past month, since the defense case for her brother-in-law has begun in full force. Considerable evidence has emerged about her life with Tsarnaev, which has raised questions about what she knew and whether she could have stopped the bombing.

The 26-year-old Tsarnaeva is the daughter of a doctor and a nurse from Rhode Island and attended Suffolk University. But, as her family watched with worry and disapproval, in a little over a year she converted to Islam, dropped out of college, and went to a mosque to marry Tsarnaev, an unemployed high school graduate. They had a daughter together in 2010.

She also chose to marry Tsarnaev after discovering that he had cheated on her on at least one occasion, her mother testified this week. During their marriage, Tsarnaeva became more withdrawn, and her family and close friends had very limited contact with her husband. Tsarnaeva, a former home health aide, now lives in New Jersey with her 4-year-old daughter.


While at least five friends and associates of the Tsarnaev brothers have faced criminal charges of obstruction of justice or making false statements — and some have been convicted and face possible prison time — Tsarnaeva has not been compelled to tell her story publicly on the witness stand, despite being married to the mastermind of one of the worst terrorist acts in recent decades in America.

DeLuca said he has not received any inquiries from the US attorney’s office about having his client testify in her brother-in-law’s ongoing trial, a case his client is following from afar but has no plans to observe in person.

DeLuca said that in the months after the bombing, when prosecutors asked her to testify before the grand jury probing the bombing, they rejected DeLuca’s insistence that she receive immunity first. Tsarnaeva did not testify.

Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, outside the Cambridge apartment where she lived with her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.Evan McGlinn/New York Times/File 2013

A former first assistant US attorney in Boston said Tamerlan’s widow’s absence from the trial — and her lack of an immunity deal — suggests that federal prosecutors are reserving the right to pursue her. He said such witnesses often invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if subpoenaed to testify without being granted immunity.

“It appears she’s within the scope of the investigation,” said Mark Pearlstein, who is now a defense attorney with McDermott, Will & Emery.


When asked whether Tsarnaeva might face charges, the FBI referred questions to the US attorney’s office, which said this week that it does not confirm or deny targets of an investigation.

DeLuca’s worries also come as evidence has emerged that raises more questions about how Tsarnaeva could have been totally in the dark about her husband’s deadly mission.

Throughout the winter of 2013, when the brothers’ bomb-making plan was underway, she and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were the only two adults living in a small 800-square-foot apartment in Cambridge. By that time, as her husband was consumed by jihad and anti-American radicalism on the Internet, she was heavily involved in being a devout Muslim woman, including covering herself, and had become adamant about certain Muslim beliefs, according to people who knew her.

After the bombing on April 15, 2013, FBI agents who searched the small Inman Square unit found bomb-making materials, including BBs, nails, and wires. In the few months leading up to the bombing, Tamerlan had been busy visiting stores, buying pressure cookers, BBs, ammunition, and backpacks.

Also by early 2013, Tsarnaeva’s Macbook Pro computer showed substantial evidence that she had received numerous videos, photos, and articles from her husband,according to testimony by a forensics expert in the trial, suggesting an ongoing effort by Tsarnaev to educate her.

In 2012, her computer showed an Internet search posing the question, “If your husband becomes a Shahid,what are the rewards for you?” Shahid is an Arabic word for martyr.


A text exchange between Tsarnaeva and her high school best friend, Gina Crawford, on the day of the bombing, also raised questions about her indoctrination, and what she may have known about her husband’s plans that day.

According to testimony Monday from Crawford, the text exchange started with Crawford asking if her friend and others were OK.

After Tsarnaeva responded that she was at work, she tells Crawford that her husband was at home in Cambridge.

Crawford replies, “OK. Good.”

Then Tsarnaeva texted, “Hmm, well, that’s a long story.”

Then Tsarnaeva wrote: “Although a lot more people are killed every day in Syria and other places. Innocent people.”

DeLuca declined to address the question of whether Tsarnaeva knew about Tamerlan’s bombing plan, but insisted that in the months before the explosions, she was preoccupied and worked 70 or 80 hours a week as the “sole supporter of the family” while Tamerlan was at home with their daughter.

He said that in the days and weeks after the bombing, she spoke with FBI and other federal investigators, and told them all that she knew.

He said he hopes she will be able to go on with her life, which for now includes school and a part-time job.

“Her focus is on taking care of her daughter and making a life for herself,” DeLuca said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GlobePatty.