Boston Bomb Suspect Was Sought as Informant, Lawyer SaysErik Larson and Janelle Lawrence
The Boston Marathon bombing suspect who died in a shootout with police in the days after the 2013 attack may have developed paranoia as a result of being approached by federal agents seeking an informant on the Chechen and Muslim community, lawyers for his brother said.
Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect and younger brother of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, cited family members in saying the Federal Bureau of Investigation solicited Tamerlan after asking him about his Internet search activities, according to a filing yesterday in federal court in Boston seeking the brothers’ immigration files and other evidence.
“No one other than Tamerlan and the agents involved were actual witnesses to what transpired, and absent verification from the government itself, the defense will have no direct evidence to establish the reasons for these contacts, or their number, nature, and content,” David Bruck, one of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, said in the filing.
The window on Tsarnaev’s defense strategy comes days before the one-year anniversary of the April 15 double bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed as Boston police zeroed in on the pair in the days after the attack. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, was captured and charged with using weapons of mass destruction resulting in death. If he’s convicted at a federal trial scheduled for November, he may face the death penalty.
In their court filings, Tsarnaev’s lawyers haven’t suggested he wasn’t involved in the bombing and are instead focusing their defense on a sentence of life in prison. The defense intends to highlight “Dzhokhar’s young age,” as well as his brother’s deeper ties to extremism, in a bid to save Tsarnaev from the death penalty, according to the filing.
Bruck said the story about the FBI contact came from the Tsarnaev brothers’ family members. He said the contact may help explain why Tamerlan Tsarnaev became more radical than his brother, and provide evidence to convince a jury that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shouldn’t be executed if he’s found guilty.
Prosecutors told the defense team they had “no evidence” of such contact with the elder Tsarnaev and argued they shouldn’t have to turn over the requested files, according to an excerpt of the government’s response that was included in Bruck’s filing.
Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the FBI in Boston, didn’t respond to a phone message yesterday seeking comment on the filing.
The defense has “reason to believe that Tamerlan misinterpreted the visits and discussions with the FBI as pressure and that they amounted to a stressor that increased his paranoia and distress,” Bruck said. “We do not suggest that these contacts are to be blamed and have no evidence to suggest that they were improper, but rather view them as an important part of the story of Tamerlan’s decline.”
Evidence of the government’s contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev may affect how jurors view his brother’s case, according to the filing.
“The jury’s sentencing verdict in this case could well turn on how it apportions the brothers’ relative responsibility for conceiving and carrying out the attacks, and on the extent to which it views Tamerlan Tsarnaev as having induced or coerced his younger brother to help commit them,” Bruck said in the filing.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a U.S. citizen, was inspired by al-Qaeda and motivated by the U.S. military’s killing of Muslim civilians, prosecutors have said. He pleaded not guilty in July to 30 counts, including allegations he killed a university police officer in the days after the attack.
The Tsarnaevs, immigrants of Chechen descent, had lived in the U.S. for more than a decade. After the attack, investigators began working with Russian authorities as they focused on a six-month trip Tamerlan took in 2012 to Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, both Russian regions roiled by Islamist separatist movements.
Bruck also asked the government to hand over all evidence gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, or by other electronic surveillance, saying prosecutors have failed to turn over the evidence after months’ of requests.
The defense team began ramping up its efforts after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided in January that prosecutors should seek the death penalty in the case if Tsarnaev is convicted. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston, who’s leading the case, said at the time that Tsarnaev’s intentional involvement in the “especially heinous” attack, his lack of remorse and his betrayal of the U.S. justified a death sentence.
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev, 13-cr-10200, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).