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Alleged Boston Marathon Bomber Pleads Not Guilty to 30 Criminal Charges

July 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Nineteen-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty to 30 criminal counts, ranging from carjacking to use of a weapon of mass destruction, resulting in the death of three people near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Gwen Ifill talks to David Abel of the Boston Globe, who has covered the case since the bombings.
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GWEN IFILL: The proceeding lasted just seven minutes today in Boston. That was all the time needed for a federal judge to receive a series of not-guilty pleas from the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Heavily armed police stood guard outside the federal courthouse in Boston, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arraigned, his first time in public since being captured nearly three months ago.

The 19-year-old arrived at midday in a four-vehicle convoy, as a handful of supporters cheered. He pleaded not guilty to 30 counts, ranging from carjacking to use of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in the deaths of three people near the Boston Marathon’s finish line.

The charges also include the murder of an MIT police officer three days after the bombing. No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, but reporters and relatives of the victims lined up early to get a glimpse of the suspect. Afterward, the uncle of two spectators badly wounded in the attack spoke to reporters.

PETER BROWN, uncle of victims: The only opinion I could have when I first saw him was that he — it appeared that he gave what I would describe as a smirk. And he never looked at us. He never turned in our direction. We were sitting directly behind him. So, we really didn’t have a good view of him, you know, facial-wise. His attorneys were there to comfort him.

I thought that maybe he would come in with a different attitude or maybe look a little different, maybe look like he cared a little bit, but he didn’t show me that.

GWEN IFILL: Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, came to the United States as boys from Russia. The family was ethnic Chechen and Muslim from the Caucasus region. An indictment released last month says the brothers came under the influence of Islamic extremist material.

Then, on April 15, they allegedly used explosives packed in pressure cookers to carry out the bombings. Three days later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a gun battle with police. Authorities say Dzhokhar escaped in a stolen SUV, running over his brother’s body.

The next evening, he was found wounded, hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, Mass., just outside Boston.

The indictment says he had written a message inside the boat that read:

“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. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”

Now Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces a possible death sentence on 17 of the counts against him. No trial date has been set.

We turn now to David Abel of The Boston Globe, who has been covering the bombings and investigation from the start. On April 15, he was reporting on the Boston Marathon from the finish line and witnessed the attacks. Today, he was in the courtroom.

Dave, thanks for joining us.

Seven minutes altogether in that courtroom. Tell us what happened.

DAVID ABEL, The Boston Globe: Well, I just want to start off by saying it was an incredibly emotional day for a lot of people. A lot of us have been waiting for a long time to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and when we saw him walk in the room, we saw him smirk.

He appears to be healthy, aside from having an arm in a cast and a bit swelling on the left side of his face.

GWEN IFILL: Where has he been held since the bombings? Obviously, he was no longer in the hospital.

DAVID ABEL: So, initially, he was treated at a hospital in Boston and then he was transferred to a prison, a federal medical prison facility just west of Boston called Fort Devens.

GWEN IFILL: So, you were inside the courtroom. And as you point out, a lot of people inside the courtroom had also been at the Boston Marathon, at the finish line. What was the reaction? Who were the people who were in the room?

DAVID ABEL: There were a range of people in the room.

There were people who had suffered some very significant injuries, whether it was major burns, whether it was serious wounds to their legs.

There were police officers, including the chief of the MIT Police Department, where Sean Collier, a police officer, was allegedly killed by the Tsarnaev brothers.

And there were also quite a number of supporters of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, people who believe that he was framed or that he’s innocent.

GWEN IFILL: These supporters, were they — they were inside and outside, I gather. Were they family members? Were they people who he knew? Were they classmates? Who were the supporters?

DAVID ABEL: Well, there were a number of people.

There were people who perhaps just read about him on the Internet and for some reason saw all kinds of videos that have been suggesting for one reason or another that he might be framed.

Then there were two of his sisters that were sitting in the front row, which was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the short appearance that he had today. And that involved one of his sisters crying as she listened to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev say repeatedly that he wasn’t guilty. He also had another sister with a baby there.

GWEN IFILL: Thirty charges against him, he repeatedly, as you pointed out, said not guilty. In a strong voice, in a loud voice, defiantly? Any way that you can characterize that?

DAVID ABEL: You know, I think it was a sign of — that answered a question that a lot of us had, which was, what condition is he in after he had been pulled out of a boat in the backyard of a suburb of Boston called Watertown where we last saw his body bloodied? He apparently had been shot near the throat and suffered other wounds.

He appeared remarkably healthy. When he said he wasn’t guilty, he said it emphatically.

GWEN IFILL: What are the most serious charges of the ones he’s facing?

DAVID ABEL: Well, he faces — of the 30 charges, I believe 17 carry the possibility of the death penalty.

The others carry life in prison without the possibility of parole. And there are a range of — a range of — there are a range of charges that involve using weapons of mass destruction, essentially.

GWEN IFILL: Is Massachusetts a death penalty state? Would that be an option?

DAVID ABEL: Well, this is a federal case, so federal law would apply.

And in 1988, the federal death penalty was reinstated. Massachusetts hasn’t had a death sentence carried out in 66 years. And it would probably have to be carried out outside of Massachusetts, as there are no death chamber facilities in this state.

GWEN IFILL: With victims in the courtroom, was there any opportunity given to them to speak or to participate in this proceeding at all?

DAVID ABEL: So, this was a short proceeding. It was an arraignment.

As you said at the outset, it lasted only seven minutes. So, the victims didn’t have an opportunity to speak, but I’m sure over the course of this case, which may last for several years, I imagine they will have an opportunity to confront the defendant.

GWEN IFILL: Now, there were lines to get inside, supporters and opponents, the media, as well as the public. And after all of the buildup, after all the anticipation, after it was over, was there a letdown?

DAVID ABEL: You know, I think, as I said at the outset, it was very emotional, for me as well.

As you said, I was standing on the finish line. I had taken a lot of the footage for a film that I was making that got broadcast all over the place. And I witnessed a horror that, as a reporter, I never hope to see again.

And I think, for a lot of us, we wanted to see what this young man looked like and to get a sense of him. And I think the takeaway for a lot of us is that he’s healthy. He believes that he’s innocent, or however that may well be characterized in the trial. And we will see how the justice process unfolds from this point.

GWEN IFILL: David Abel of The Boston Globe, thanks for being there for us.