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Boston Bombing Trial Shifts to Defense and Fight for Tsarnaev's Life

With the government expected to wrap its case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bombing trial will be put into his defense team's hands.
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/ Source: NBC News

From the start of the Boston Marathon bombing trial, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defense lawyers have all but conceded his guilt.

"It was him," public defender Judy Clarke told the jury in her March 4 opening statement, referring to Tsarnaev's image on surveillance footage dropping a pressure cooker bomb, concealed in a backpack, near the race's crowded finish line.

That's because the defense team's goal is not to secure an acquittal for their 21-year-old client. It is to spare him from execution.

That strategy will take center stage this week, after prosecutors wrap up their case, perhaps as early as Monday.

The plan seems relatively straightforward: counter the government's image of Tsarnaev as an equal collaborator with a different narrative that makes him more of a dupe.

The prosecution relied on graphic recollections from victims, families, rescue workers and investigators. But the defense's case will likely navigate a softer side: Tsarnaev as an impressionable teenager manipulated by his older brother, Tamerlan, a fellow refugee of the war-torn Russian Caucasus region who became a radicalized Muslim and died in a shootout with police four days after the April 15, 2013, twin blasts killed three and injured 260.

In her opening statements, Clarke showed the jury a photo of the brothers when they were much younger, and asked them to question how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became so violent. Her answer: Tamerlan.

Clarke argued that Tamerlan, five years older than Dzhokhar, "had a special kind of influence dictated by his age, their culture, and Tamerlan's sheer force of personality." She said Dzhokhar had to be held responsible for the part he played. "But he came to his role by a very different path than suggested to you by the prosecution: a path born of his brother, created by his brother, and paid by his brother."

Clarke and her colleagues are expected to flesh that out over a few days, presenting a much shorter case than the prosecution's, which lasted almost a month. There has been speculation that Tsarnaev will take the stand in his own defense, but such a move remains unlikely, legal experts say.

The case will likely go to the jury late this week or early next week.

If the jury convicts Tsarnaev, which seems all but assured, the trial will move into the penalty phase. Then the defense team will decide once again whether to have their client testify.

That is when the defense team strategy would be able to further focus on Tsarnaev personally.

Humanizing a defendant considered a key way to persuade a jury — or at least one member, which is all you need — that he doesn't deserve the death penalty.

And that's what Clarke asked the jurors on the trial's first day: "It's going to be a lot to ask of you to hold your minds and hearts open," she said, "but that is what we ask."