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Tsarnaev’s future in prison debated as defense nears end

Dzhokhar TsarnaevFederal Public Defender Office

At least nine of the 33 convicted terrorists who have been sentenced to the country’s most secure federal prison since 2002 under special security restrictions have since had those restrictions lifted, according to testimony Thursday in the death-penalty trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Federal prosecutors elicited the testimony to show that there is no way to know for certain where Tsarnaev would be held, and under what conditions, if jurors choose to spare his life and sentence him to life in prison rather than death.

The testimony was meant to contradict assertions made by Tsarnaev’s lawyers Wednesday that the US Department of Justice could order that Tsarnaev be held under special conditions at the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado, or ADX, known as a Supermax prison.


The defense lawyers have sought to convince jurors that it would be better to send Tsarnaev there than allow him to remain in the public eye for the many years it takes to appeal a death sentence.

Mark Bezy, a consultant for the defense, had testified Wednesday that all but one of the 34 terrorists convicted in US federal court had been sent to the H Unit at the ADX, where they are locked in single-inmate cells 23 hours a day, and have limited phone and mail privileges.

The one convicted terrorist not sent there was incarcerated in a medical facility.

Bezy acknowledged during cross-examination Thursday, however, that at least nine of those terrorists were later reclassified and transferred to the general population, and have fewer restrictions as a result.

“They get more out-of-cell time. They eat one meal out of their cell. There’s small recreation groups,” he said, describing the conditions for the inmates once the special restrictions are lifted.

Bezy’s testimony is central to the jury’s consideration of whether to sentence Tsarnaev to death or life in prison, and Assistant US Attorney Steve Mellin — who cross-examined Bezy — and defense lawyers sparred over what life in prison would look like for Tsarnaev.


Tsarnaev, 21, was convicted last month of 30 charges related to the Boston Marathon bombing, the shooting of an MIT police officer, and a firefight with police in Watertown. The same jury that convicted him must now decide his sentence, and both prosecutors and defense lawyers have been able to use evidence and witness testimony to argue over what punishment he deserves.

The case, which began with opening statements on March 4, is nearing its end.

US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. told jurors around 1 p.m. Thursday that testimony was finished for the day and they should return Monday. O’Toole made the unexpected announcement following a closed-door conference with defense lawyers and prosecutors.

Defense lawyers could rest their case Monday, though they are seeking to call at least one more witness: Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty opponent who wrote the book that became the basis for the movie “Dead Man Walking.”

Prejean has conducted extensive research on inmates on death row — inmates who have been sentenced to death and are anticipating it but who remain in prison while their appeals are pending.

Her book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” was published in 1994 and adapted into a feature film in 1995.

O’Toole has not decided whether he will allow Prejean’s testimony, and it remains unclear what her testimony would be about.


Once the defense team rests its case, prosecutors will be able to call witnesses to rebut the defense case.

So far, both sides have called 60 witnesses over 10 days of testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial. At least four of those witnesses also testified in the first phase.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.