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The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Boston Marathon bombing trial, explained

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's accused of bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's accused of bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Getty Images

It has been more than two years since two bombs exploded at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon and the world watched in horror as an extensive, televised manhunt followed — culminating in a bloody shootout that killed one suspect and a tense standoff in which the other was captured.

Now, on Friday, May 15, a jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for the Boston Marathon bombing.

The jury previously found Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 charges stemming from the bombing, which has been widely regarded as the worst act of terrorism on US soil since 9/11. With Tsarnaev sentenced to death, his trial one of the most high-profile federal cases since the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The trial took months — and appeals could take years more, especially with the jury's decision on the death penalty. But one thing that isn't in doubt is Tsarnaev's involvement in the 2013 bombing.

How the Tsarnaev brothers carried out the Boston Marathon bombing

Boston Marathon bombing

First responders at the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. (John Tlumacki/the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 21, purportedly helped his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, plant and detonate two bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. The bombs were improvised explosive devices with pressure cookers and explosive powder from fireworks, loaded with shrapnel that tore through nearby victims' limbs.

It's difficult to gauge what would inspire such a terrible act, but court documents indicate the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly acted on a twisted, radical interpretation of Islam and opposition to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the bombing, as the police closed in, the brothers allegedly killed an MIT security officer; they also carjacked, kidnapped, and robbed another man, according to court filings reported by the Boston Globe. Police and the Tsarnaev brothers first faced off in Watertown, Massachusetts, where the brothers fired gunshots and tossed homemade bombs at police officers. Tamerlan was fatally wounded during the confrontation, when he was shot by police and, according to authorities, run over by Dzhokhar as the younger brother drove away in a stolen SUV.

Dzhokhar was later trapped and arrested while hiding alone in a boat in a suburban driveway in Watertown. ABC News reported he received multiple life-threatening injuries, including a gunshot to the face. He's been living in a prison hospital ever since.

The case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is straightforward, as prosecutors brought an overwhelming amount of evidence against the 21-year-old.

Surveillance footage at the Boston Marathon directly linked the brothers to the bombing, according to the Washington Post. The man the Tsarnaevs carjacked, who managed to escape, also told authorities that the brothers admitted to the bombing and planned to go to New York and detonate additional bombs, indicating that the attack on the Boston Marathon was only the start of a much bigger scheme.

Dzhokhar's capture in the boat was widely televised and photographed. It's also in the boat that authorities say he wrote an incriminating note — "Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop" — in an apparent allusion to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also allegedly admitted to the bombing during questioning without a lawyer present, authorities claimed in court documents.

The defense seems acutely aware of the evidence against Tsarnaev. Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev's attorney, opened the case by stating, "It was him."

The Tsarnaevs' journey from the post-Soviet world to America — and to extremism

Second Chechen War

Russian troops during the Second Chechen War. (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Much has been made of the Tsarnaev brothers' roots in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region of southwestern Russia that fought two bloody and failed wars for independence in the 1990s and 2000s, the latter of which was fueled in part by Islamist extremists who still operate there. While the Tsarnaevs' own extremism may have some ideological roots in Chechnya's history, US authorities do not see any direct connections to Chechen groups or movements.

The Tsarnaev family is Chechen, though the brothers grew up elsewhere. Dzhokhar was born in July 1993 in the central Asian country Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, where he lived within a Chechen enclave that had been forcibly relocated to the region in the 1940s as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's ethnic cleansing of Chechnya. Dzhokhar later lived in the mostly Muslim region of Dagestan in Russia, which is next to Chechnya and was also involved in the war that broke out in Chechnya in 1999. He moved to the US in 2002, where his family eventually gained asylum based on political persecution.

The Dzhokhar his friends knew rarely showed any signs of extremism, according a New York Times profile. He attended the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He obtained US citizenship on September 11, 2012. He drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. His friends described him as laid-back and fond of soccer and parties.

But a twisted interpretation of his religion, perhaps combined with the influence of his older brother, seemingly led Dzhokhar to act out, according to a note he allegedly wrote before his capture:

I'm jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus (inshallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions. I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) to allow me to return to him and be among all therighteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!

The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a [UI] I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. Well at least that's how muhhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [for]ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/[UI] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don't like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [UI] it is allowed. All credit goes [UI].

Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.

Much of this conversion to extremism seemed to be guided by Dzhokhar's older brother, Tamerlan, who allegedly had a violent past. Tamerlan participated, authorities on May 2013 told CNN, in a 2011 triple homicide outside of Boston — although a court filing from October 2014 indicated the government had "no evidence," besides a now-deceased suspect's account, that Tamerlan was involved. And court records show he was arrested in 2009 for slapping a girlfriend, according to the Washington Post.

The CIA had added Tamerlan to a terrorist database 18 months before the Boston bombing, US officials told the Associated Press, after receiving a tip from the Russian government that he may be a follower of radical Islam. But they never found evidence to elevate him to a more serious terror watch list, according to the AP.

The Times reported on how Tamerlan influenced Dzhokhar:

A second Chechen friend since boyhood, 18-year-old Baudy Mazaev, said that the older brother and their mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, "had a deep religious epiphany" about two or three years ago. At the time, Tamerlan's new devotion only irritated Dzhokhar, he said.

During one visit about two years ago, he said, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to sit and forced the two teenagers to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer. After that, he said, they began avoiding the apartment.…

Yet the conversion did not seem to diminish him in his younger brother's eyes. "I know he respected him as the elder, especially once his father went to Russia," Mr. Mazaev said. "He was his older brother and the only male of the house, so he was more dependent on him."

The extremism may stem in part from the Tsarnaev brothers' roots in Chechnya and Dagestan. Tamerlan visited the two Russian regions in 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported, during a bloody government crackdown on an ongoing Islamic insurgency.

Both regions have been involved in multiple brutal rebellions against the Russian government, as Max Fisher explained in the Washington Post. Some of the uprisings have been led by separatists who seek an independent Chechnya. Other times they have been led by Islamist extremists who have attempted, London-based analyst Murad Batal Al-Shishani wrote, to connect the Chechen conflicts to a broader jihadist movement.

Despite these connections to Chechnya, though, authorities told the Washington Post that the Tsarnaev brothers appear to have acted alone and without outside instruction.

Tsarnaev's interrogation raised constitutional questions

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A TV near the site of the Boston Marathon bombing displays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's picture. (Mario Tama/Getty Images News)

FBI investigators questioned Tsarnaev for 16 hours without a lawyer present and before reading his Miranda rights, according to the AP. He immediately stopped talking after investigators informed him of his constitutional rights. The Los Angeles Times reported that Tsarnaev had also asked for a lawyer multiple times during the interrogation, but the request was ignored.

Federal prosecutors argued in a court filing that the interrogation was lawful and the evidence gained from it shouldn't be suppressed in court. Their explanation is that at the time, they believed the Tsarnaev brothers were not working alone due to the sophistication of the Boston Marathon attack, precipitating the need for an emergency interrogation to find out to what extent American lives were still in danger. They also argued, touting what's known as the "public safety exception," that they should be able to use evidence from the interrogation for rebuttals in court, although not for their primary case.

But critics have questioned investigators' actions, which became a flashpoint over broader civil rights issues that have persisted in the aftermath of 9/11 as the federal government has steadily expanded its ability to interrogate terrorist suspects.

UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Since 9/11 there has been a debate, still unresolved, as to what constitutional protections apply to those apprehended in foreign countries and held as enemy combatants. But there is no doubt that a crime in the United States must be investigated and prosecuted in accord with the Constitution."

The trial's biggest fight is over whether to apply the death sentence

Eric Holder

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

US Attorney General Eric Holder personally opposes the death penalty, but he authorized the death penalty in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images News)

Federal prosecutors sought the death sentence for Dzhokhar, making his trial a rare example of a federal death penalty case. The death penalty is banned in Massachusetts, but Tsarnaev's case has fallen under federal jurisdiction, which allows capital punishment.

US Attorney General Eric Holder, who personally opposes the death penalty, in 2014 nonetheless authorized prosecutors to pursue capital punishment, the New York Times reported. US attorney Carmen Ortiz argued in court filings that the death penalty was justified because, among several reasons, Dzhokhar had used a weapon of mass destruction — the bomb at the Boston marathon — and shown no remorse for his actions.

The trial took place in two phases. The first phase decided whether Dzhokhar is guilty. The second decided his sentence. Those decisions could be appealed to higher courts, as is particularly common with death penalty cases.

Clarke, Tsarnaev's attorney, has made a career out of preventing the executions of some of the most reviled criminals, including the Unabomber and Jared Loughner, who killed six when he attempted to assassinate former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Throughout the trial, Clarke characterized Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing and held no criminal record, as manipulated into the attack by his older brother — a strategy focused on reducing his sentence.

"It matters because we are entitled to know the full picture," Clarke said in her closing comments, according to the Times. "We don't deny that Jahar fully participated in the events," she said, using Dzhokhar's nickname, "but if not for Tamerlan, it would not have happened."

Tsarnaev developed a pop culture following online

(Rolling Stone)

After he was taken into custody, Tsarnaev developed a large following on social media that claim he's innocent. Much of the following also simply seems to think Tsarnaev is cool, perhaps buoyed by a Rolling Stone cover story that was widely criticized for picturing Tsarnaev like a rock star.

As Gawker and the Daily Beast reported, a lot of the admiration appears to stem from Tsarnaev's good looks and from widespread images, videos, and GIFs that seek to portray him as just another teen. Much of the following comes from young girls — placing Tsarnaev's supporters in line with other fandoms of people accused of terrible crimes, such as alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes.

But at least part of the movement is convinced Tsarnaev is innocent and the accusations against him are a conspiracy.

"Here is a kid with no known terrorist ties," one defender of Tsarnaev told the Daily Beast. "He is 19 years old, he's a US citizen, he has never been in trouble with the law previously, and the main reason — there's no motive. There's no evidence that Jahar was a radical Islamist. He barely even attended his local mosque. What reason does he have to hate the US? He's got scholarships from the state of Massachusetts. He's a citizen, this is his home and it has been his home since he was nine years old."

Since the Daily Beast and Gawker ran their stories, many of the Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages in support of Tsarnaev have been deleted — all while the federal investigation progressed and more evidence came to light.