Accused Boston Marathon Bomber Pleads ‘Not Guilty’ To Attack
BOSTON – Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, with his arm in a cast, accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded “not guilty” to committing the worst mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, a crime that could bring him the death penalty.
Appearing in court for the first time, the 19-year-old ethnic Chechen – a naturalized U.S. citizen – spoke clearly, answering seven times that he was “not guilty” and occasionally glancing back at the gallery, where survivors and victims’ relatives were watching.
Tsarnaev is charged with killing three people and injuring about 264 others by setting off homemade bombs – pressure-cookers filled with explosives, nails and ball bearings – assembled by him and his older brother, Tamerlan. Prosecutors say the brothers placed backpacks containing the bombs among the spectators near the finish line of the race on April 15
Several days later, in the suburb of Watertown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer was killed in a shootout, during which 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after his brother ran over him with car as he escaped. The ensuing manhunt resulted in a day-long lockdown of most of the Boston area until Dzhokhar was found, badly wounded, hiding in a boat in a backyard.
Tsarnaev’s appearance in the federal courtroom on Wednesday was the first time he has been seen in public since his arrest on April 19. His hair was long and unruly, his left arm in a cast and the orange jumpsuit, unbuttoned to the waist, revealed a black T-shirt underneath.
He fidgeted, scratched his face and looked around the courtroom, watching prosecutors as they spoke and occasionally looking back at about 30 survivors of the attack and victims’ families.
“He didn’t seem too shaken up by this. He didn’t seem affected one bit, but I’m not a mind reader,” said John DiFava, chief of the MIT police department, who attended the proceeding.
Tsarnaev is also charged in the shooting death of 27-year-old police officer Sean Collier.
The biggest challenge for Tsarnaev’s attorney, public defender Miriam Conrad, will be sparing him the death penalty, observers said.
Security was tighter than usual on Wednesday outside Boston’s U.S. District Courthouse, which is also the site of the ongoing murder and racketeering trial of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, now in its fifth week.
A handful of Tsarnaev supporters were outside and a few attended the proceeding.
“It was a little heartbreaking, but Dzhokhar and I have faith in Allah,” said one supporter, Mary Churbuck, who wore a shirt with Dzhokhar’s image and the slogan “Free the Lion.”
“He’s rolling with the punches,” Churbuck said. “There’s no evidence that he did do it. They don’t have any evidence of him putting his backpack down.”
According to court papers, Tsarnaev scrawled a note on an inside wall and beams of the boat in which he hid.
“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” the note read, according to the papers. “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”
“Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said it is allowed,” he wrote, according to court papers. “Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”
Three people died in the April 15 bombing – 29-year-old restaurant manager Krystle Campbell, graduate student Lingzi Lu, 23; and 8-year-old Martin Richard. MIT police officer Collier was killed three days later, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said the government planned to call between 80 and 100 witnesses and that the trial would likely last three to four months. A status hearing was scheduled for September 23.
Tsarnaev’s brief appearance at the federal courthouse in Boston, described in wire service reports, came as Senate and House lawmakers in Washington held separate hearings into “lessons learned” from the attack and drew renewed criticism from Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis that the FBI should have shared information about a trip to Russia by Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, and his connection to a Chechen separatist region.
“There should be a full and equal partnership,” Davis told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, ratcheting up his earlier frustrations that the FBI withheld from local police information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his trip to Russia.
At the House Homeland Security Committee session, chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), complained bitterly that the FBI had refused to participate in the hearing, even turning down an offer to meet with committee members in a closed meeting. “What concerns me greatly is that the problem at the heart of preventing the Boston bombings – the failure to share information – is being witnessed now in this very room,” McCaul said.
But Paul Bresson, a top FBI spokesman in Washington, defended the bureau, saying the FBI has briefed the House committee “on several occasions” and advised McCaul on July 3 that it could not participate in the hearing because the bombing case remains “an ongoing investigation and a pending prosecution.”
Bresson added, “We have an obligation to protect the integrity of the judicial process while it is ongoing.”
FBI officials in Boston have said local police on the Joint Terrorism Task Force would have had computer access to any leads and investigations worked by law enforcement agencies, and could have learned about the FBI’s investigation into Tamerlan Tsarnaev on behalf of the Russian government.
But Davis saw it differently, saying his officers were kept in the dark. “We have four officers who are assigned to the JTTF,” the police commissioner said. “There’s one in each terrorism squad. But we were not aware of the information on Tsarnaev and his travel overseas.
“I’m not saying that we would have done anything different had we had the information that the FBI had prior to this,” Davis said. “But I am saying that there should be a full and equal partnership where everyone is sharing equally.”
The Boston police commissioner said that it would put his patrol officers and detectives in jeopardy not knowing in advance that someone like Tamerlan had been the target of an investigation by the FBI and Russian law enforcement over alleged ties to violent groups in Chechnya.
“When my officer stops Tsarnaev or someone like him,” Davis said, “we’re blind as to the prior information, and that puts my officers at risk. So I feel very, very strongly about this.”