Prosecutors in the death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev said the FBI has assigned 16 staffers to protect five Tsarnaev relatives from Russia and demanded they take the stand this week, according to a court transcript.
“It’s an enormous expense and distraction for the agency, and that’s just part of the expense that the government has endured,” said prosecutor William Weinreb during a closed-door meeting Monday with the defense and US District Court Judge George O’Toole.
Weinreb said the FBI is “devoting 16 personnel full-time to taking care of them, both guarding them as well as protecting them from the press and others.”
He added, “It’s currently the intention of the FBI to return the foreign witnesses to Russia on Friday, meaning that they need to testify this week. At that point, they will have been in the country for a week.”
The relatives arrived in Boston last Thursday and were initially staying at a Revere hotel, which became the focus of intense media coverage. The relatives moved over the weekend to an undisclosed location, local police said.
Tsarnaev’s defense team has declined to comment on the relatives’ arrival or name any of them and they did not identify them during the meeting with the judge.
The relatives are likely to testify about Tsarnaev’s family roots in politically volatile Southern Russia, including his parents’ frequent moves and other difficulties.
The prosecutor suggested the government may not be flexible about extending the relatives’ stay in Boston, according to a transcript of the hearing made public this week.
“So I want the record to reflect that it is still our intention that they are all going back to Russia on Friday whether they have testified or not, and the defense can make their decision about whether they want to call them between now and then or not,’’ Weinreb said.
Defense attorneys responded by saying they are planning to put the relatives — a total of five — on the witness stand on Thursday, but they are busy preparing them for their testimony and they cannot make guarantees this will happen by Thursday. The court is not in session on Friday.
Defense attorney William Fick said that preparing the witnesses is not easy.
He said that “the conditions under which their presence was permitted and the conditions under which we’re able to interact with them makes it extremely difficult to do the preparation work” and he said it was “time-consuming.”
“So there’s a concern about whether we can be ready on Thursday, but we’re certainly making efforts to do so,” Fick said.
The judge responded, “OK. Witness-handling is always an issue in cases and it’s routinely resolved.” He then asked how much time the witnesses would be on the stand.
Fick said it was “a work in progress,” but he expected they would all be on and off within a day.
When asked for more specificity by the judge, Fick said, “There are five of them. It kind of depends on the length of the cross[-examination]. And I suspect each witness’s direct [examination] is probably in the neighborhood of a half-hour.”
The judge said he thought the government’s timing request was within bounds.
“Well, let’s see how things develop, but I don’t think the government’s request is an unreasonable one as I heard it,” O’Toole said.