Jurors began deliberating Wednesday on the sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sorting through a complex 24-page verdict slip meant to help them decide whether the Boston Marathon bomber should be sentenced to life in prison or death.
The jurors were left with only 45 minutes to meet Wednesday after receiving instructions from the judge and hearing closing arguments from both sides. Prosecutors used their time to depict the 21-year-old defendant as a remorseless terrorist who participated in the bombing to make a political statement; defense attorneys portrayed Tsarnaev as the troubled follower of an older brother who brainwashed him into joining his violent plan.
Both sides also reminded jurors — the same panel that convicted Tsarnaev last month — of the emotionally charged testimony and graphic photos presented during the 10 weeks of testimony. Yet they recommended contrasting methods of weighing whether Tsarnaev deserved to be put to death.
In her closing argument, Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev’s attorney, delivered a surprising concession, telling jurors they could quickly endorse some of the sections of the verdict slip that refer to the factors that permit, but do not require, the imposition of the death penalty for her client.
“Check them off,” she said with a dismissive flick of the wrist.
Clarke acknowledged there was ample evidence presented during the trial that Tsarnaev, among other things, intended to kill, that his crime was premeditated, and that it was especially cruel and heinous — all factors that make his offenses subject to capital punishment.
But prosecutors urged a more careful review of each section of the verdict form, calling on the 12 jurors to study the long list of Tsarnaev’s actions and each question they must answer in reaching their decision. They called on jurors to remember that they promised to remain open to the death penalty if the government proved its case.
“I urge you to take your time with each one,” said prosecutor William Weinreb, who gave the rebuttal closing after Clarke’s statement.
But Clarke, as has been her style since the beginning of the trial, when she startled the courtroom by conceding that Tsarnaev committed the crimes, continued to try to show jurors that she was leveling with them and that she was a high-minded attorney looking to not waste their time with legal technicalities.
In her 90-minute statement, Clarke struck a more philosophical note, saying sometimes good kids emerge out of chaotic, troubled homes to become good young adults — but sometimes not. She went through photos and evidence suggesting that Tsarnaev’s parents were emotionally, and later physically, absent from his life, and that Tsarnaev’s older troubled and radicalized brother, Tamerlan, filled the void.
The root cause of the violence that erupted on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, was Tsarnaev’s older brother, Clarke said.
“Dzhokhar would not have done this but for Tamerlan,” she said.
Clarke admitted that she did not know why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev transformed from a kind, hard-working teenager to a failing college student who embraced his brother’s violent ideology and participated in a bombing that killed three and injured hundreds more.
“If you expect me to have an answer, a simple clean answer, I don’t have it,” she said.
The death penalty, Clarke told the jury, is reserved for the “worst of the worst,” and she maintained that Tsarnaev — a former wrestling team captain at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and a former student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth — deserves a lifetime behind bars, not execution.
“We’re asking you to choose life,” she said. “Yes, even for the Boston Marathon bomber. It’s a sentence that reflects justice and mercy.”
During the day’s proceedings, Tsarnaev appeared impassive, as he has throughout the trial.
Echoing themes of war, prosecutors passionately argued before jurors that Tsarnaev was his own man and chose to become a jihadist warrior. They portrayed him as part of a disturbing number of young anti-American terrorists who seek to kill to send a political message.
While the defense has cited Tsarnaev’s age — he was 19 when he planted the bombs — as a mitigating factor against the death penalty, prosecutor Weinreb rejected the notion.
“These weren’t youthful crimes,” he said. “There was nothing immature or impulsive about them. These were political crimes, designed to punish the United States . . . by killing and mutilating innocent civilians on US soil.”
He went on to say that while the defense case focused heavily on Tamerlan as the evil force who corrupted his younger brother, no evidence to back up the theory emerged in court.
“Where is the evidence of brainwashing and mind control?” Weinreb asked.
During a dramatic moment during the government’s closing, prosecutor Steven Mellin stopped talking for a full 20 seconds, creating a strange stillness in the courtroom. He then reminded jurors it was that amount of time — multipled by 12 — that Tsarnaev waited and watched before detonating his homemade bomb near the Richard family and other victims outside the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street.
Mellin also named Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and MIT police officer Sean Collier as the four people killed by Tsarnaev’s violent plans and each of the 17 people who lost a limb in the explosions.
During his 60-minute closing argument, Mellin reminded jurors that, among the horrors of the bombing, some families suffered multiple tragedies. Referring to the Richard family, he said: “This defendant blinded the mother, maimed their 6-year-old daughter, ripping off her leg, and blew apart 8-year-old Martin right in front of their son and the father. There is no just punishment just for that other than death.”
The remorsefulness of Tsarnaev — who did not take the stand — was another major topic of the closing statements.
Clarke said that Tsarnaev expressed regrets, citing Monday’s controversial testimony of Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun and prominent death penalty opponent who was able to visit with Tsarnaev five times in the past two months.
Prejean testified that Tsarnaev had said of the victims, “No one deserves to suffer like they did.”
“The critical thing is Dzhokhar is remorseful today,” Clarke told jurors. “He has grown over the last two years, he is sorry, and he is remorseful.”
But prosecutors told jurors to remember that Tsarnaev bought milk at Whole Foods within a half hour of the bombings, acting as if it were “any other day.”
Mellin also suggested that jurors remember Tsarnaev’s writings in the dry-docked boat in Watertown before he was captured: “Now I don’t like killing innocent people, but in this case it is allowed.”
“These are the words of a terrorist who thought he did the right thing,” Mellin told jurors. “His actions have earned him a sentence of death.”
Reaching their final decision will be more art than science, both sides said, telling jurors that it will not be a simple tabulation of how many aggravating factors they endorse against the number of mitigating factors they find. Those factors, among other things, are delineated on the verdict slip.
For the jury to impose the death penalty, all 12 members would have to unanimously agree on that sentence for at least one of the 17 death-eligible counts for which Tsarnaev was convicted. Anything short of that would require the judge to impose life in prison without parole.
Jurors are scheduled to resume deliberations Thursday.
Clarke reminded jurors that they should not feel pressure to reach a consensus, and that even one person who resists the death penalty would mean that Tsarnaev is spared that result.
“Whether a sentence of death is justified, it’s your own individual decision,” she said.