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In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, a Search for Justice and Closure

Undated photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Undated photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, a Search for Justice and Closure
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A court in Boston, Massachusetts is making final preparations for the trial of suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He is accused of terrorism and other crimes in connection with the deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. His older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was also suspected in the attack. He was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police four days later.

Court officials began questioning possible jurors on Monday. The jury selection process could take several weeks.

The Tsarnaevs are ethnic Chechens. The two brothers had lived with their family near Boston for more than 10 years.

VOA reporters Fatima Tlisova and Mike Eckel investigated the lives of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

I’m Caty Weaver. Today, Jonathan Evans and I tell you what the reporters found.

Some recent history

Both young men were considered loving and peaceful by the people around them. Just weeks before the bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter visited another Chechen family in New Hampshire. Madina and Musa Khadzhimuradov had fled Chechnya in the early 2000s.

They said that during the visit, Tamerlan seemed to enjoy playing with his little girl.

Musa Khadzhimuradov told VOA:

“We didn’t talk about war or religion, nothing. He was happy. Maybe he had a double life or something, but he was playing with his child.”

But legal documents and reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation suggest that he was plotting something destructive.

At least twice before April 15, Tamerlan had visited a Manchester firing range, where people train to shoot guns. On March 20, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev joined his brother at the firing range.

Tamerlan had also traveled to the New Hampshire town of Seabrook to buy fireworks and gather gunpowder. Investigators say he stopped at a store called Phantom Fireworks. They say he left with 48 mortars and almost four kilograms of low explosive powder.

Store employee April Walton spoke to VOA about Tamerlan’s visit. She said he asked her for the loudest, most powerful fireworks they sold.

The Grand Jury indictment says that Tamerlan went online around April 5, and ordered electronic parts that could be used to make bombs. The parts arrived at the Tsarnaev’s apartment home by mail.

Strange behavior noted at local mosque

In recent years, some members of the Tsarnaev family had begun talking about their religious beliefs. The leader of the mosque they attended told VOA of two strange incidents during prayer services. Imam Fenni said that in November of 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev stood up and interrupted a guest speaker. The speaker was talking about the importance of Muslims in America accepting public holidays like Thanksgiving. Tamerlan angrily told the gathering that the speaker was wrong.

Imam Fenni said a similar incident took place in January of 2013. He said Tamerlan again angrily interrupted a guest speaker.

In January of 2012, Tamerlan had gone on a six-month-long trip to Russia’s North Caucasus area. He spent some of his time in Dagestan. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Tamerlan had been in contact with two wanted militants during the visit.

Novaya Gazeta reporter Irina Gordienko told VOA, “People in Dagestan told me he dressed strangely, his behavior was unusual. He wasn’t very knowledgeable about Islam.”

Back home in the United States, Tamerlan Tsarnaev held short-term jobs and took a few college classes. He boxed for a while but his career in the sport did not take off.

A close family friend said “He didn’t seem to know where he was going.”

The FBI questioned Tamerlan in 2011 at the request of Russian security officials. They had been watching his reported interactions with Chechen radical groups.

An FBI statement says the Russians reported that Tamerlan “was a follower of radical Islam.”

The youngest Tsarnaev

Friends and family say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev acted differently than his older brother. Dzhokar was seen as intelligent but quiet. Friends say he seemed to follow Tamerlan’s lead.

Dzhokhar’s suspected involvement in the Boston Marathon bombing was even more of a shock. Friends and people who know him say Dzhokhar caused no concern to neighbors, friends, school, or law enforcement before April 15, 2013.

A family friend said “Dzhokhar kept to himself, he was smart. He made his own choices. He wasn’t the center of attention; he was always off to the side.”

In the months before the bombing, the Tsarnaev home was occupied only by Tamerlan, his wife and their daughter. The parents of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were both living in Russia. Dzohkhar was attending school at University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth.

A few signs of trouble

Investigators say there were suggestions that Dzhokhar was exploring violent acts when he was a student at the University of Massachusetts. In the spring of 2013, he reportedly downloaded to his computer several books and documents that supported radical Islamist ideas.

One was an article called: “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Pressure cookers were used in the Marathon bombing.

After his arrest, investigators entered Dzhokhar’s college dormitory room. They examined his computer and found a backpack containing fireworks that had been emptied of gunpowder.

The night of April 15, Dzhokhar sent a friend — the son of a Boston-area Chechen immigrant — a text message. It asked the friend if he was at the marathon and if he was OK.

A hunt for the suspects

On April 18, as police widened their search for the bombers, the brothers reportedly shot and killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hours later, as the hunt continued, Dzhokhar sent another text message to a college classmate saying: “If you want u can go to my room and take what you want.”

In the early hours of April 19, police shot and killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the community of Watertown, Massachusetts. Dzhokhar was wounded. He hid in a boat parked in a backyard driveway.

Inside the boat, he wrote several messages, documents say. One reportedly reads:

“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians; I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished; 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.... stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”

Trial as closure

The trial in Boston will likely be closely followed by Americans. For some, it will be a simple hope for punishment of a bomber.

For others, it might be a chance to learn why a well-liked, successful 19-year-old college student decided to launch a horrific attack at a beloved sporting event.

One childhood friend said, “I want to know why he did it. I want to know why he would go out of his way, what did he need when he already has everything.”

Federal prosecutors have indicated they will seek the death sentence if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is found guilty.

His defense lawyers are expected to argue that he acted under the influence of his older brother and is less responsible for the act.

The trial will renew pain for the victims of the bombing and for the Chechen refugees who have fled to the United States. Many of them dreamed of rebuilding their lives in peace. The Boston Marathon bombings destroyed that dream for many.

I’m Caty Weaver with Jonathan Evans.

Caty Weaver wrote this story from a collection of VOA reports, including a feature by Fatima Tlisova and Mike Eckel. George Grow was the editor.