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Compassion drove ex-Tsarnaev teacher to testify

Tsarnaev’s former teacher spoke on his behalf

Photo of a younger Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presented during the penalty phase of the trial.
Photo of a younger Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presented during the penalty phase of the trial.Federal Public Defender Office

Becki Norris never doubted that her former middle school student was guilty of the Marathon bombings, but it didn't take long for her to decide to testify in his defense, as she did last week when she smiled at him fondly from the witness stand.

The 37-year-old middle school principal, whose friend suffered shrapnel wounds that required surgery, realized soon after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's capture that his lawyers might ask her to vouch for him. She had spent hundreds of hours teaching him math and science and advising him when he was at the Community Charter School of Cambridge.

The call came a few months after the bombings, and then an investigator from Tsarnaev's legal team came to Norris's school.

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"I was very nervous," she said in an interview with the Globe. "I was worried they would use me as some kind of apologist for him."

The investigator explained that she wouldn't have to testify during the guilt phase of the trial. "I didn't want to try to get him off," she said. "I believe he did it, and that would have been disingenuous."

Her role would come in the penalty phase to try to persuade the jury to spare his life. "I was willing to help them do that," she said.

Over the past two years, Norris has given a lot of thought to gnawing questions: What if he showed no remorse for killing four people and injuring more than 260 others? What if her testimony brought pain to survivors? What would people think of her for speaking tenderly about someone who committed an atrocity?

In the end, she decided she could separate Tsarnaev's actions from the boy she knew so well a decade ago when he was in the seventh and eighth grades. She decided she would testify, even if meant she would be condemned for it.

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In an essay that appeared on WBUR's website Monday, Norris wrote that she "discovered the painful truth that when you care deeply for someone, that does not stop, even if he does unfathomably horrible things."

Becki Norris
Becki Norrishandout

She added: "We humans are surprisingly good at holding two irreconcilable ideas in our psyches at the same time. Yes, he did the unforgivable. And yes, I still love him. And — this one is hard to fathom, I know — he is a human being who still needs love."

Norris also mulled what she could have done to steer him toward a different fate.

A few days after ninth grade began, an administrator sent Tsarnaev home to change into the black pants that were part of his school uniform. His mother was livid, and he never went back to the school.

Norris offered to talk Tsarnaev's mother out of pulling him out of the school, but he persuaded her not to try.

"I've relived the situation a lot," Norris said. "I wished I called her."

She imagined, with the right guidance, he could have received a scholarship to college, calling him one of her "top students."

When she learned that Tsarnaev had been accused of the bombings, she never questioned whether he was responsible. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," she said. "I was in shock, but I had no reason to believe it wasn't him."

She did, however, agree with the defense's argument that his brother, Tamerlan, was the mastermind. "I knew [Dzhokhar] was a really compliant kid, and I knew he cared about pleasing people in authority," she said. "I couldn't imagine him planning this, but I could believe that he was impressionable."

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Also fueling her decision to testify was her opposition to the death penalty.

"I don't think punishment should be revenge or retribution or that the government should be in the business of killing people," she said.

Norris last ran into Tsarnaev about five years ago.

They spoke of his grades, which he said were foundering, and his wrestling, of which he was really proud. "It was a warm, really positive meeting."

The next time she saw him was when she took the stand at the federal courthouse in Boston last Wednesday.

Throughout the trial, Tsarnaev has shown next to no emotion, even as victims recounted the horror of their experience.

When Norris sat, he smiled at her — and she smiled back.

"I wondered how much of him was left in there, and I felt like I had a glimpse of the Dzhokhar I had known," she said.

"I really don't believe that someone loses every bit of their humanity, goodness, and temperament when they do something like this, and so I still care about him," she said.

She was aware that he has yet to show remorse.

"Part of the reason I hope he stays alive is that he might come to terms with the evil he did," she said. "You never know when a kid is going to turn it around."

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She hopes victims don't take offense to her testimony.

"I had to tell myself that if there were victims in the courtroom that day, they were there for the defense presentation," she said. "I had to let that be their decision."

As for her critics, she understands some won't agree with her decision to testify.

"I'm asking for people to put themselves in my shoes and ask what they would do," she said. "I think we owe it to be ourselves to be as compassionate as we can."

FULL STORY: Witnesses describe Tsarnaev in earlier years

Listen to Norris's WBUR interview below.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @davabel.