Teen or Terrorist?

In closing statements, the prosecution paints Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a radicalized jihadi.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

A courtroom sketch of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, March 5, 2015.

Illustration by Jane Flavell Collins via Reuters

BOSTON—A music video was perhaps the last thing one expected from today’s closing statements in United States v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But as prosecuting attorney Aloke Chakravarty concluded the government’s argument, he cued up a montage on the courtroom’s screens. The courtroom’s speakers played a nasheed—an Islamic chant frequently associated with jihad—that Tsarnaev was apparently fond of listening to on his iPod.

We were shown a photo of Tsarnaev sitting below a black flag with Arabic writing (one the prosecution had painted as a jihadi emblem). “This is how the defendant saw his crimes,” said Chakravarty. The pulsing nasheed incantation continued to fill the room as images of the marathon bombing site flashed. It was as though we were watching an ISIS recruitment video.

“But this is the cold reality of what his crimes left behind,” Chakravarty interrupted. The music stopped. The images continued. Bloodied people, mangled limbs, anguished faces. Silence in the courtroom. The reason the Tsarnaev brothers detonated those bombs, said Chakravarty, “was to tell America that we will not be terrorized anymore. We will terrorize you.”

Chakravarty’s statement was careful throughout to paint Tsarnaev as a terrorist. As a man acting in the service of a radical ideology. “You can tell by the defendant’s expression,” said Chakravarty as he displayed video of Tsarnaev strolling down Boylston Street with a pressure-cooker bomb on his back, “by the casual way he walks, that he is entirely untroubled by what he is about to do. Because for a year he has been listening to terrorist songs, and reading terrorist literature, and he thinks that what he’s about to do is right. … That day they felt they were soldiers. They were the mujahedeen.”

This was a lot of talk about motive, given that the vast majority of the 30-count indictment against Tsarnaev has nothing to do with the why of his crimes. What matters is only that Tsarnaev enacted them. The government has marshaled swathes of evidence to prove that he did, and the jury will be very hard-pressed to decide that he didn’t. (Particularly since Tsarnaev’s own defense team acknowledged “It was him” on the opening day of the trial and then put up only four witnesses against the prosecution’s 92.)

To be sure, there was some legal purpose to Chakravarty’s musical montage. Counts six, seven, and nine, for instance, relate to “bombing a place of public use” and require the jury to find that a crime “was committed in an attempt to compel the United States to do and to abstain from doing any act.” Chakravarty needed to cement that impression. But he did so again and again.

Why the emphasis on where Tsarnaev’s head was at? The truth is this trial has never been merely about guilt or innocence. The true battle is the one for Tsarnaev’s life. Will he spend it in prison, with no possibility of parole? Or will it be extinguished by the jury’s decree?

Tsarnaev’s defense attorney, Judy Clarke, again admitted her client’s guilt in her closing. “For this destruction, suffering, and profound loss, there is no excuse,” she said, “and no one is trying to make one.” She then spent the rest of her statement trying to make one.

Clarke’s argument was entirely about the why of things. About the relative roles played by the two brothers. For her, the most important facts to note are that Tsarnaev’s older brother Tamerlan was the first to download radical jihadi materials from the Internet, before passing them on to Dzhokhar; that Tamerlan bought the detonating devices, the pressure cookers, and the backpacks to hide them in; that Tamerlan walked in the lead down Boylston Street while Dzhokhar followed; that Tamerlan (Clarke alleges, though the government disagrees) fired the real pistol while Dzhokhar stood behind him armed with a measly pellet gun.

Again and again, Clarke referred to the fact that Tsarnaev was 19 years old at the time of these crimes. She reminded the jury that his Internet activity was largely about checking Facebook. (She didn’t mention that his 10th most visited site was pornhub.com, though it was there for the jury to see in the evidence.) She kept uttering variations on the phrase “a kid doing kid things” or “a teenager doing teenager things.” Clarke pooh-poohed the government’s effort to paint Tsarnaev as “a jihadi in the making.” She instead recalled that he was “flunking school and making lame excuses about it.” She pointed to his tweets quoting Nas and Eminem, and read aloud ones he’d written about wanting to sleep a lot. “That sounds like a teenager to me,” she said. It was as though there were a neon sign over her head blinking “THINK OF THIS EXCEEDINGLY YOUNG MAN AS A HUMAN BEING, NOT A MONSTER.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Tsarnaev’s thinking during his crimes is the essay he scrawled while hiding inside the dry-docked boat where he eventually was found. His brother was already dead, and Tsarnaev knew he would soon either die or be caught, and thus we can assume—as the government argued— this was the message he hoped the world would take from his crimes. Tsarnaev carved into the boat’s slats, “Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” There it is, in the prosecution’s view: the proof that Tsarnaev conceived of himself as a terrorist, killing innocents for political purpose.

Clarke asked the jury to consider the context—the fact that Tsarnaev was wounded and bleeding (though, as the government noted, he’d been strong enough to pull himself up into the elevated boat without a ladder) and had just escaped a hail of bullets. “What he doesn’t write in here,” she noted, “is what you might think a violent jihadi would write. ‘Death to America.’ He doesn’t write that.”

True. But he came pretty close. Clarke also failed to be convincing when she argued that Tsarnaev hadn’t targeted children at the marathon. Video footage clearly shows him standing directly behind a line of kids, clear as day, with plenty of time to notice them and contemplate what was about to happen. He could have chosen somewhere else to plant his bomb.

It’s safe to assume the jury will return a guilty verdict sometime in the next few days—for most of the 30 counts in the indictment, if not all. Judy Clarke knows this, and even welcomed it. “The horrific acts that we’ve heard about deserve to be condemned,” she said as she concluded, “and the time is now.” Her implication: The time for vengeance and justice is now because we don’t want you to seek them in the next phase of the trial, when the jury will decide whether or not to execute Tsarnaev.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial