Boston Marathon Bomber Gets Emotional During Relatives' Testimony

May 4, 2015
Originally published on May 5, 2015 1:02 am
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Boston this afternoon, convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got emotional in court for the first time. Five of his relatives from Russia took the stand, and Tsarnaev seemed to tear up during their testimony. NPR's Tovia Smith was in court and she joins us now. And Tovia, first, tell us about this testimony and how Tsarnaev reacted.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, I think we all saw what we've been watching for for months and haven't seen yet, and that is any single even small sign of emotion. For months, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has sat totally impassively with this blank expression. Even as a parade of survivors described their horrific injuries and losses and pain and suffering, he would usually not even look at them. But today he did turn to see these five relatives who traveled from Russia, and one in particular, his 64-year-old aunt. She took the stand and immediately started crying. Then she sobbed uncontrollably, hyperventilated, and that's when Tsarnaev started grabbing tissues and wiping his eyes.

And I'll just add this - aunt was the sister of Tsarnaev's mother. The mother herself did not come testify. She has some issues with mental illness according to the defense, and anyway, there's an outstanding warrant for her for shoplifting, so if she did come here, she would be immediately arrested.

BLOCK: And I understand that as Tsarnaev left the courtroom he seemed to signal to his relatives in some way.

SMITH: Yes. Court was breaking for lunch, and Tsarnaev was being led out by U.S. marshals. He deliberately slowed down. He turned, he smiled, and he blew a kiss to the huddle of relatives who were still crying in the court room. Again, this today was really the first time we've seen this human being in him. And of course it's exactly what the defense team's goal is here - to take this man who prosecutors cast as a monster bent on becoming America's worst nightmare, and to recast him as a person - a misguided person for sure, but a person because they're hoping to persuade at least one juror to sentence him to life in prison instead of death.

BLOCK: Could you tell, Tovia, what reaction the jurors had to all this?

SMITH: It's hard to tell from the outside of course, but I can tell you they were not openly crying as we have seen them do before, though I did see some faces that seemed to feel the pain of these relatives who say they were shocked and distraught by the horrific crimes that were committed by this cute little kid they used to know. And, I should say, none of the relatives were defending or excusing what Tsarnaev did. One went out of her way to say she categorically rejects what he did, what a tragedy it was. Another said, this is not what our family teaches. So on some level, the jury could see them as victims, too.

BLOCK: Well, if the defense is trying to humanize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the jury, what did the prosecution do about that? How did they try to undercut that testimony?

SMITH: Well, they were relatively quiet when they talked about the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his extremism. But when they talked about how sweet and kind Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, that's when they jumped in. One family member said he was unable to hurt a fly. He was so empathetic as a kid that he cried at "The Lion King." That's when prosecutors pounced, almost mocking the relatives, at one point saying, you know, you say he was a kind kid, but you would agree that bombing children was not an act of kindness. They also pointed out that Tsarnaev may have cried at the death of this cartoon character in a movie, but he was indifferent, they said, to the death of innocent victims.

BLOCK: OK.

SMITH: So they seemed to pour water - cold water on this idea that Tsarnaev was this otherwise good kid who deserved a break on sentencing.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Tovia Smith covering the Boston Marathon bombing trial. Tovia, thanks.

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