ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There was a dramatic admission of guilt in a federal court in Boston today. Lawyers representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev admitted that he was the Boston Marathon bomber, responsible for killing three spectators and a police officer and injuring hundreds more. The startling admission came during opening statements in Tsarnaev's trial. He faces 30 counts, most of which carry the death penalty. NPR's Tovia Smith was in court and joins us now. And Tovia, this admission of guilt - was it a surprise?
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Not entirely. The evidence in this case was so overwhelming - basically irrefutable - that many believe the defense had no choice. But it was striking how blunt Tsarnaev's attorney was when she said that Tsarnaev's, quote, "senseless horribly misguided acts" that she said caused unbearable grief were, quote, "incomprehensible and inexcusable."
Both sides agree on that, she said, but they differ on why he did it. And she suggested there's another way to understand what happened. She says that Tsarnaev was not the obsessed, violent jihadist, she said, that his brother was. He was just a follower, kind of under a spell, who - he idolized his older brother and was intimidated by him.
So, for example, she suggested another way to understand the so-called boat note - the message found where Tsarnaev was hiding saying that Americans should be punished for killing Muslims and that he wanted to be a martyr. The attorney suggested that had more to do with being jealous of his big brother who was killed in the shootout and wanting to follow him to martyrdom than anything to do with Tsarnaev being a terrorist himself.
SIEGEL: Tovia, just to be clear, although his lawyer has said he's the Boston Marathon bomber, the plea that he's entered is not guilty. So what's to be tried here if his lawyer says he did it?
SMITH: Well, that's a question defense attorney Judy Clarke told jurors they might be wondering, too. But this trial has two separate parts - first, to determine whether he's guilty, second is when the defense will use this brother-made-me-do-it kind of argument to try and convince jurors that Tsarnaev doesn't deserve to be put to death. And all it will take is one who believes that the brother's influence is a factor, and Tsarnaev could be automatically - would be automatically - sentenced to life instead of death. The problem is the judge ruled this morning the defense has to wait until sentencing to bring that up. So defense is left trying to hint at it and allude to it and prosecutors will object.
SIEGEL: Meanwhile, prosecutors made their opening statements in which I gather they didn't hold back at all.
SMITH: Not at all. They gave a preview in graphic detail of all the injuries and deaths at the marathon and during the manhunt. Then, they started introducing evidence - video actually showing it all and calling witnesses to describe it, including survivors.
A woman who lost a leg choked up as she recalled her bones literally lying next to her - she said on the sidewalk. Another described bleeding out. She said she could feel she was dying. Another amputee said she held the hand of a friend until it went limp in hers, she said. And her friend died. We heard from a man who described how he's still haunted by having to decide which victim to help first. Really truly disturbing stories - and repeatedly the defense would just say they had no questions for the witnesses. They're not challenging what happened.
SIEGEL: All this before a courtroom packed with survivors. How did they respond to all this?
SMITH: Well, there were many there. We saw the mother of the eight-year-old boy who was killed, wiping her eyes as prosecutors described the way that he was blown up. The mother of the amputee who testified wept. That mother herself is a double amputee.
I saw some look away from the video of the blast. Some put their head in their hands. Earlier, they were straining to see Tsarnaev. For many, it's the first time they were ever in the same room as him. After it was over, many of them embraced each other. Several of them cried. One mother of two victims said it was hard to watch. Another said she was glad that - he said that he was glad the trial was in Boston. No emotion could be seen from Tsarnaev at all.
SIEGEL: OK, Tovia, thank you. That's NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.