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Boston bombing suspect’s defense depends on why he did it, not if

Nearly two years since the attack on the Boston Marathon, the trial for suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got underway Wednesday. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Emily Rooney of WGBH about the scene in the Boston courtroom.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    After weeks of delays, the trial of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got under way today in Boston.

    Here's Hari Sreenivasan with more.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The trial's start was delayed in part by a long jury selection process; 18 jurors and alternates were finally selected from a pool of more than 1,300.

    After several different motions to try and change the venue, opening way got under way today, and it was a dramatic day.

    Emily Rooney of WGBH starts us off with this report.

  • EMILY ROONEY, WGBH:

    Early this morning, victims and their families were bused to the courthouse on Boston's waterfront and escorted straight inside.

    They have waited almost two years, and today they first heard from the federal prosecutor attorney William Weinreb, who said both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were terrorists whose mission was to maim and kill.

    Weinreb said Dzhokhar's computer was full of terror schemes and instructions on how to build a bomb out of a pressure cooker. And he described in gory detail how the three victims died, saying one bomb tore large chunks of flesh off 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was just 4'5" weighing 70 pounds.

    Shockingly, the defense said they won't dispute the government's account of what happened that day. Attorney Judy Clarke said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walked down Boylston Street, carrying a backpack, and put it down. She said, what he did was inexcusable, but that he was drawn to a path of violence by his older brother, Tamerlan, a special kind of influence dictated by age, culture and sheer force of personality.

    That will be a tough argument, as the jury is reminded of what started on April 15, 2013. The winners had finished hours earlier, but back-of-the-pack runners were still streaming in and spectators still lined the streets.

    In addition to the three people who were killed, hundreds more were maimed and injured. Then the shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier four days after the bombings triggered a dramatic manhunt that crippled Boston and surrounding communities. Over one million residents were ordered to stay inside. The chase ended after a wild shoot-out in the Boston suburb of Watertown, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed, run over by his own brother, Dzhokhar, as he eluded police for another 20 hours, until he was discovered hiding in a boat a few blocks away.

    Meanwhile, the projected four-month-long trial is going to be a hardship for everyone. Between a massive construction site in front of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, intense security, mounds of snow and a dearth of public parking, just maneuvering the terrain will be tough.

  • MAN:

    It's only because of the snow, really, and the trial. I mean, the mixture of the two makes it really bad.

  • EMILY ROONEY:

    Snow was just one reason for a slow start to the trial, but today was progress, with one victim telling me simply, "I couldn't believe it."

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Emily Rooney joins us now.

    Emily, you were in the courthouse this morning. Tell us a little bit of what it was like in there. There were survivors sitting in the benches.

  • EMILY ROONEY:

    I was actually sitting right across from them and looking very intently at them.

    At one point, the parents of 8-year-old Richard Martin looked over and the father got up suddenly and left the courtroom. And I thought, wow, this is too intense for him, because it was right in the middle of the opening statement. He came back. I guess it was just sort of an emergency break. But some of them were very, very intently watching and looking and trying to strain to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Others were more focused on the jury or what the prosecution or the defense had to say.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what did Dzhokhar Tsarnaev look like?

  • EMILY ROONEY:

    Well, I couldn't see him because, yesterday, they had him facing the courtroom. I was only like 10 or 15 feet away. He was facing potential jurors and all the media.

    Today, his back was to all of us. But he looks very, very sallow, thin. Has got very, very thick, Bushy black hair, a goatee that he strokes constantly. He's very fidgety. but is also laid back and seems disinterested for the most part, completely disengaged.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As you mentioned in your report, his strategy or his lawyer's strategy seems to be not that he deny doing this, but really just to prevent him from getting the electric chair or the death penalty.

  • EMILY ROONEY:

    Boy, I have to say, Hari, you could have knocked people over with a feather when Judy Clarke came out and the first thing she said was, we're not going to argue with what the government has said. He was there. He was on there on Boylston Street. He put on a backpack loaded with bombs. He set the backpack down, he detonated his own bomb.

    She basically made him a guilty man. But what she did say, we are going to dispute the government's version that he was a co-conspirator, that she is saying that he was led along and that his age and his youth played into the fact that he was unduly influenced by his brother, Tamerlan.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Emily Rooney of WGBH, thanks so much.

  • EMILY ROONEY:

    Thanks, Hari.

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