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Tsarnaev Defense Urges Jury To Spare His Life


The attorneys defending Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had their first chance today to start laying out why they think he does not deserve the death penalty. Tsarnaev was convicted earlier this month on 30 federal charges. NPR's Tovia Smith was in the court and is with us now. And Tovia, what types of arguments are Tsarnaev's attorneys making?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, really, two different kinds - first, they're trying to show that Tsarnaev was the junior partner in crime in this case and that his now-deceased older brother, Tamerlan, was the leader. If not for him, they said, it never would have happened. People may not want to hear this, his attorney said, but Dzhokhar was a good kid. It's just that for a number of reasons, they said, he couldn't defy his older brother. The defense is also making a case more broadly against the death penalty, telling jurors they shouldn't even try to hurt Tsarnaev like he hurt others because it's just not possible. Also, on a more pragmatic level, they said life in prison is a worse punishment than a quick death anyway. His attorneys put up a picture of the super-max prison where Tsarnaev would go and told jurors, he goes here, he's forgotten - no more spotlight, no martyrdom.

CORNISH: And, Tovia, this is actually an argument we've heard before - right? - from a few of the survivors and families, including the parents of the 8-year-old boy who was killed where they said they don't want Tsarnaev to get the death penalty because they don't want him to stay in the news through years of appeal. I mean, will the jury hear from them or hear about that?

SMITH: Well, victims' opinions on sentencing are not supposed to get in, but you can bet the defense will try because tis could very well give jurors some extra comfort in voting for life instead of death. But I should add, it's only what some survivors want. Others feel just as strongly that death is the only right punishment, and that includes even one woman who was in court today who has two sons who each lost a leg in the attack. She was there watching.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the witnesses called today.

SMITH: Well, for starters, they were people who had a lot more to do with Tamerlan than Dzhokhar. In fact, you could say that the defense attorneys who were trying to defend Dzhokhar were acting more like prosecutors trying to convict his brother, Tamerlan. So witnesses talked about Tamerlan's angry outburst at a mosque. The mother of Tamerlan's widow, Katherine, and Katherine's best friend both described how Tamerlan became more radical. Both women choked up describing how they learned that Tamerlan was the marathon bomber. And then the mom did again when she was talking about Katherine's healing in the past couple of years, though she was quick to add that it hasn't been as hard for her as it was for the victims. And through it all, we didn't see any emotion from Tsarnaev, although he did seem to hang his head down a little bit less than usual and glance over at these witnesses a little bit more than usual.

CORNISH: How did prosecutors respond?

SMITH: Well, talk about role reversal - they are actually trying to minimize what the defense calls Tamerlan's obsession with Islamist extremism, and prosecutors are trying to highlight Dzhokhar's activity. They're trying to kind of close the gap between the two and undermine the defense argument that Dzhokhar is less culpable.

CORNISH: Tovia, who else do we expect to hear from?

SMITH: Well, the defense says they want to offer more context for what Dzhokhar did. Just like they said the still photo of Dzhokhar raising his middle finger looks a lot different when you see the whole video that it was pulled from, the defense says it's going to offer context for why Dzhokhar was so susceptible to his brother's influence. So a primer on Chechen history and culture, on adolescent brain development, a lot of talk about how dysfunctional his family was, though, as prosecutors have said anticipating this, lots of people come from troubled homes and don't murder people with bombs.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston. 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.