Minutes before he was formally sentenced to death, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev surprised his victims on Wednesday by making his first public statement during his months-long trial — an apology for the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon finish line two years ago.
“I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for damage that I’ve done. Irreparable damage,” Tsarnaev said to a silent courtroom.
Dressed in a suit, Tsarnaev stood hunched over as he spoke, and looked straight ahead — never glancing back at his victims in the gallery.
Tsarnaev told the court that he’d been listening throughout his trial, even as he kept up an inscrutable demeanor.
“I learned their names, their faces, their age,” Tsarnaev said. “And throughout this trial more of those victims were given names, more of those victims had faces, and they had burdened souls.”
Tsarnaev’s statement was a stunning surprise in a hearing in which the victim impact statements were expected to be the main focus. It came after more than 20 of his victims and their family members confronted him with their own statements over three hours, describing the lifelong physical and emotional pain he had caused. Most of the jurors who condemned Tsarnaev to death in May had returned to the courtroom, and some were moved to tears.
At the end of the hearing, US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. sentenced Tsarnaev to death on six of the 30 charges he was convicted of, and gave him consecutive life sentences for some of his other crimes. O’Toole was bound by the jury’s decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death — a sentence that is subject to an automatic appeal.
The jury condemned Tsarnaev to death specifically for the bomb he placed that killed two people — not for a separate bomb his older brother placed.
O’Toole, in his remarks before he issued the sentence, told Tsarnaev he will be remembered solely for his “evil.”
“What will be remembered is that you murdered and maimed innocent people and that you did it willfully and intentionally,” O’Toole told him.
O’Toole ended his remarks by saying: “I sentence you to the penalty of death by execution.”
Tsarnaev delivered his brief statement in a thick accent. He did not explain why he participated in the Marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, the worst terror attack on US soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
The statement Wednesday triggered mixed reactions.
“We didn’t hear a word about the reasons he did this crime,” Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb, the lead prosecutor in the case, said after the hearing. “He never renounced terrorism, he did not repudiate violent extremism.”
Jinyan “Helen” Zhao, the aunt of Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student who was killed in the bombing, said she was glad to hear Tsarnaev say something, and to hear his voice, but she said she wasn’t sure the apology was genuine.
“He’s a little bit like a confused kid,” she said, saying his comments “seemed a little forced.”
Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said that Tsarnaev likely spoke during Wednesday’s hearing because it was the only chance to speak publicly without subjecting himself to the “government’s brutal cross-examination.”
Any defendant who takes the stand in a trial opens himself to being challenged by prosecutors, and Tsarnaev’s attorneys may have believed the benefits of his statement did not outweigh the risks that he’d alienate jurors, Pearlstein said.
Tsarnaev repeatedly referred to his religion, opening and closing his statement by praising Allah — surprising some of his former close friends who said they don’t recall him being so devout.
In his remarks, O’Toole said it was tragic that Tsarnaev fell to the “diabolical siren song” of Islamist extremists and propagandists, saying “such men are not leaders but misleaders. They induced you not to a path to glory but to a judgment of condemnation.”
Quoting Verdi’s opera “Otello,” O’Toole criticized the concept of following a “cruel God.”
“Surely someone who believes that God smiles on and rewards the deliberate killing and maiming of innocents believes in a cruel God. That is not, it cannot be, the god of Islam,” the judge said. “Anyone who has been led to believe otherwise has been maliciously and willfully deceived.”
One of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, Judy Clarke, said that Tsarnaev had offered to apologize more than a year ago and would have pleaded guilty under an agreement that he serve life in prison. Prosecutors said that account was not accurate. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz would not elaborate.
The statements Wednesday were the closing chapter of a months-long trial that began in January.
Most of the 12 jurors — as well as several of the alternate jurors — returned to the courtroom Wednesday at the judge’s invitation.
Three people were killed in the bombings: Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old local restaurant worker from Arlington and Medford; Lu, a Boston University graduate student from China; and Martin Richard, 8, the younger son of a popular family from Dorchester.
Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, also shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier and led police into a firefight in Watertown. Tamerlan was killed during the confrontation.
Richard Donohue, a Transit Police sergeant who was injured in the Watertown shootout, said that he almost died because of Tsarnaev’s crimes.
He added, “The defendant did not succeed in all his actions. I am still standing here.”
Patricia Campbell, the mother of Krystle Campbell, told Tsarnaev that “What you did to my daughter was disgusting.”
Karen Rand McWatters, who was with Campbell and held her hand until she died, said “you will never know why she is so desperately missed by those who loved her . . . you ruined so many lives that day, but you also ruined your own.”
Bill Richard, the father of Martin Richard, told O’Toole that Tsarnaev chose a life of hate, destruction, and death, while his family chose peace and kindness, and added: “That is what makes us different from him.”
And Jen Rogers, one of Collier’s sisters, said that her family had been “ripped apart by pure hate.”
Several bombing survivors spoke of lives forever changed, of hidden, emotional wounds, of increased anxiety and depression, of having to relive the bombs in nightmares and know that others were injured worse than they were. They spoke of wounds that have caused them to lose their jobs, or that ended their marriages.
One victim, Scott Weisberg, a family physician from Alabama, said he can no longer hear body sounds using a stethoscope because of hearing loss from the bomb blasts, affecting his ability to continue working.
Michael Chase, who helped tend to Richard’s younger sister Jane, told O’Toole that “I’m never going to get over the images I saw that day on Boylston Street.”
Some victims said they simply wanted to move on. “I’m the one who is alive, and the defendant is already dead,” said Meghan Zipin. “I’ll eat pizza, I’ll go to yoga. He’ll go back to his cell.”
Tsarnaev, who has been held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer, is likely to be transferred soon to the prison known as “Death Row” in Terre Haute, Ind., where the US Bureau of Prisons holds federal inmates awaiting execution.
Weinreb said that Tsarnaev, who left the courtroom in handcuffs, was immediately placed in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.
His death sentence will be automatically appealed in a multi-stage process that could last more than a decade, and he will be assigned a new trial team that will examine the work of his current lawyers.