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Boston Bombing Jury Sees Tsarnaev's Writings


In the trial of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, defense attorneys aggressively cross-examined a government witness. And NPR's Tovia Smith was in the court room and joins us now. And, Tovia, Tsarnaev's lawyers have admitted his role in the bombing, so what exactly were they challenging today?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, yes, they admitted that he did it on day one of the trial last week. And so they've had no dispute with any of the many survivors testifying about the death and destruction caused by the bomb. Attorneys just sat silently through that listening. But today, they were taking issue with what kind of person Tsarnaev was. They told jurors in their opening last week that he was not the violent extremist that his brother was, but more like a typical teenager, they said. So they went after, today, all of these kind of eerie, radical-sounding tweets that the government had presented and the FBI agent who testified about them.

For example, they brought out that one of Tsarnaev's tweets that the agent said was a quote from an Islamist terrorist recruiter was actually a quote taken straight from the Quran. Another tweet about hosting a party on 9/11, they said, was from a Comedy Central sketch about, quote, "things you don't yell." And Tsarnaev's cover photo that was presented as an image of Mecca, defense attorneys said was actually his native Chechnya.

They also got the FBI agent to concede that the 45 tweets he highlighted were ones that prosecutors wanted the jury to see, but that the vast majority of Tsarnaev's thousand or so tweets, like one about a cheeseburger, were typical teenage stuff focused on, as they put it, food, sleep, girls and cars.

CORNISH: So how did prosecutors respond to all this?

SMITH: Well, they asked a few more questions but then pretty quickly switched gears to some other very indicting evidence. We saw for the first time the so-called boat note that Tsarnaev penciled onto the side of the boat where he was hiding. That explained how he doesn't, quote, "like killing innocent people," but since, quote, "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," meaning Muslims, he wrote, "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished." So that seemed to offer a pretty clear picture of Tsarnaev's mindset or motive, and defense attorneys didn't have much to say about it. Today, though - in their opening last week they did suggest that a closer reading of that note suggests Tsarnaev was driven more by wanting to follow his big brother than by extremist violence. The first line of that note says he's, quote, "jealous," of his brother who got the reward of going to heaven before him.

CORNISH: And so is there a sense that this is all working toward sentencing, right?

SMITH: That's right. Having admitted to the bombing, the goal here is only to spare Tsarnaev the death penalty and get him what is only the other option, which is life in prison with no parole. And they want to use this idea of Dzhokhar as just a young, intimidated kid following along a big brother who was the real violent extremist and the driving force behind the attack. They want to use that to get the one juror they need to decide that life would be a more appropriate punishment than death.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tovia Smith at the Boston Marathon bombing trial. Tovia, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.