The Implacable Bomber

During a day of grisly testimony, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears unperturbed.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
A courtroom sketch shows accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in court on the second day of his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston on March 5, 2015.

Image by Jane Flavell Collins via Reuters

Wednesday evening, a few hours after she’d testified about the explosion that shredded her leg, Rebekah Gregory posted an open letter to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She revealed that Tsarnaev wouldn’t look her in the eye as she sat on the witness stand. And she wrote about the strength that she took from facing him down. “I looked at you right in the face … and realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. And today I realized that sitting across from you was somehow the crazy kind of step forward that I needed all along.” (She also reminded Tsarnaev that she’s free to enjoy her life now while he sits in a cell awaiting a verdict on his life. “So man that really sucks for you bro,” she concluded.)

If there’s been one sliver of light amid all the darkness we’ve heard about in the last two days—listening to witness after witness describe the worst 30 seconds of their lives—it’s been watching these survivors take the stand without fear, alive and plucky, grateful to the brave people who rushed in and helped them. There were even a few lighthearted moments this morning when Jeffrey Bauman took the stand, after walking to the front of the courtroom on two prosthetic legs. Bauman recalled he woke up in the hospital the day after the marathon and saw his best friend John Sullivan in the room. “I knew I wasn’t in heaven,” said Bauman, “because Sully was there.” The courtroom erupted with a burst of pent-up laughter. “Nah, he’s a good person,” said Bauman. When Sullivan handed him a pad to write on—Bauman was still intubated and couldn’t speak, but knew the extent of his injuries—he wrote “Lieutenant Dan” on the paper, referencing a legless character in Forrest Gump. “I was just messing with him,” he explained Thursday with a grin. 

Save for Bauman’s upbeat testimony, however, this was not a day of levity. We heard, for instance, police officer Frank Chiola describe his attempt to resuscitate Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old woman who did not survive. When he compressed Campbell’s chest, he said, smoke came out of her mouth.

Roseann Sdoia spoke of the moment that she realized she was going to lose her right leg. “I looked down, I had to do an assessment,” said Sdoia. “I tried to remember if I’d been wearing strappy sandals that day. And I remembered I wasn’t. And then I realized that was just my foot dangling.” A photo of Sdoia exhibited to the jury, taken moments after the blast, made clear why she’d been confused.

Officer Lauren Woods recounted the last moments of Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University grad student who died on Boylston Street. Lu was vomiting over and over, so Woods tried to clear out her mouth to let her breathe. “Stay with us,” she said to Lu, “You can do this, stay strong.” After Lu died, Woods stayed with the body, explaining, “She was part of the crime scene now.” When Lu’s parents came to Boston from China, Woods took them to the spot where Lingzi had died and prayed with them.

The day ended with the testimony of William Richard, the father of 8-year-old Martin. Richard calmly narrated the events of that marathon Monday, which had ended with his wife blind in one eye, his 6 year-old daughter Jane missing a leg, and Martin dead. The prosecution at one point asked Richard to annotate a photo taken the afternoon of the marathon, showing his family standing next to the race route just before the first explosion. “That’s me,” he said, circling himself with the telestrator. “That’s Jane, with two legs. And that’s Martin.” Looming behind them in the photo, we could see a familiar, unsettling image—a skinny young man in a backward baseball cap. “Did you ever see this person with the white hat turned backwards?” asked the prosecutor. Richard appeared to briefly glance at Tsarnaev and answered: “Until today, in person? No.”

With the defense team having allowed on the first day of the trial that their client is indeed the bomber, it is in some ways a strange exercise to hear this litany of heartbreaking stories. Of course, the prosecution must fulfill its duty—dotting i’s and crossing t’s to secure a guilty verdict—and no one would wish to deny the victims and their families the right to testify against Tsarnaev in court. But I would guess that many of the jurors would prefer to just convict Tsarnaev right now, sparing themselves future days of disturbing testimony from the witness box and horrifying images on the courtroom’s television screens.

For their part, the lawyers have moved on to the next stage of the battle—the part where they try to paint Tsarnaev as either a remorseless murderer or a troubled patsy. Thursday, they squabbled over whether mentions of U.S. actions in the Middle East would be allowed in this part of the trial. When Officer Chiola compared the scene on Boylston Street to things he’d witnessed as a Marine in Iraq (“It took me back,” he said, his voice choked with emotion), the defense immediately objected and Judge George O’Toole agreed, asking Chiola to limit his recollections to the day at issue. The defense also halted Officer Woods when she revealed that her cousin had died in Iraq and began to explain that this affected the way she dealt with Lingzi Lu’s death.

Later, with the jury and the witnesses out of the room, the two sides had it out. “This military theme” is “peculiarly prejudicial,” argued defense attorney David Bruck, given that his client is an immigrant Muslim. “It sets up an ‘us versus them’ framework,” said Bruck. Judge O’Toole sided with him. “I don’t want to hear the word Iraq or Afghanistan until we get to that later stage of the case,” said O’Toole.

But that later stage is here, given the defense’s concession of guilt. The jury is already beginning to decide whether they will let Tsarnaev live or put him to death. And it’s not at all clear which is the more fitting outcome. Does Tsarnaev think that death equals martyrdom? Would allowing him to live mean his side has “won,” thus granting him a victory he doesn’t deserve? And which is the more severe punishment, anyway? Would you rather be executed or spend 60-odd years in a box? I’m not even sure I can answer for myself.

At the beginning of the day, before the jury came in, Bruck made a strange request of the judge. He asked that one of the cameras in the courtroom be turned off. It’s a camera that allows the media—those of us who sit in an overflow room and watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV—to get the same head-on view of Tsarnaev that the witnesses get as they sit in the box. Bruck complained that none of the media in the courtroom get this view, and that it invades the “privacy” the defense team would like to have when they confer with their client. Judge O’Toole did not make a ruling but said he’d consider the issue.

I’m quite certain that what’s bothering Bruck is the proliferation of media stories describing Tsarnaev’s disquietingly casual affect—his toe-tapping, his beard-fiddling, the way he leans back in his chair with his collar open like he’s a Hollywood studio exec at a pitch meeting. We in the media get a great view of this behavior from that camera. Of more concern to Bruck should be the fact that the jury gets a clear look at it, too.

If I’d done something as evil as Tsarnaev has done, the worst punishment I can imagine—worse than death or a lifetime of prison—would be if I were forced to watch, hour after hour, as a parade of people faced me and told me in chilling detail about the day I robbed them of their limbs, or killed one of their children. That’s Tsarnaev’s punishment right now. It doesn’t seem to bother him much.