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Relatives who flew thousands of miles to help save convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from execution took the stand in his death penalty trial Monday, including a Russian aunt who broke down in tears and drew what appeared to be the defendant's first outward sign of emotion.
The aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, began sobbing after spelling her name and was unable to go on. Tsarnaev, watching her, wiped his eyes with a tissue as a judge told her to return after she'd regained her composure.
Her aborted testimony followed two Tsarnaev cousins who remembered him as a good-natured boy raised by an itinerant family, including a mother who became a devout Muslim and an older brother who became radicalized after they emigrated from the Russian Caucasus to the United States.
The relatives offered a rare glimpse into Tsarnaev's childhood, before he grew up and transformed into someone capable of joining his brother in an April 15, 2013, terror attack that killed three people and injured more than 200 others.
"I can only say good things about Dzhokhar, and that's not because he's my cousin," cousin Raisat Suleimanov, a nurse who lives in Moscow, testified. "He was a very warm child. And I think his kindness made everyone around him kind."
Suleimanov's older sister, Naida Suleimanova, grew teary-eyed when she came face-to-face with Tsarnaev in court, where a jury is considering whether to sentence him to death. "He was very cute, very nice, very kind, there was always a smile on his face," she said.
Each cousin's testimony was accompanied by photos of Tsarnaev as a young boy, surrounded by family. One image showed him on the shoulders of his older brother and co-conspirator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died in a shootout with police four days after the bombing.
"Dzhokhar loved his older brother very much," Suleimanova, a Moscow gas station cashier, said. "This is the custom in our family: You always try to listen to your older sibling and follow his example."
That is exactly the point Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers are trying to make in a bid to spare him from the death penalty. They argued that Tsarnaev was manipulated into taking part in the bombing, and the bloody manhunt that resulted in the murder of an MIT police officer, by Tamerlan after their parents moved back to Russia.
Prosecutors argue that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted last month of all 30 criminal counts against him, was a willing and equal partner in the violence.
At one point during Suleimanova's testimony, a defense lawyer played an audio tape of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in which he described having "this rage of hatred inside of me" and worried about not seeing the creation of an Islamic caliphate before he died.
Suleimanova said she didn't recognize his view of Islam, and was disturbed by his apparent radicalism when he visited her in Russia. "I had two conflicting feelings: to see my brother and hug him," she recalled.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb got Suleimanov to acknowledge that while Tsarnaev's family moved around the Russian Caucuses region when he was young, he was loved and well cared for, and even took summer vacations.
She and her sister also recalled their surprise at seeing Tsarnaev's mother start wearing traditional Muslim clothing.
Later on Monday, Shakhruzat Sulelmanov, sister of the Tsarnaev brothers' mother, testified that he hadn't seen Tsarnaev since he was 8, when he was quiet and shy. The entire family had been "a fun loving family," she said.
"They were so good, they wouldn't hurt a fly, my sister's children" Sulelmanov said. "Such good children."
The relatives were followed on Monday by friends of Tsarnaev's from Cambridge, where his family settled upon their arrival in the United States.
The friends recalled Tsarnaev as shy but kind, and known to smoke pot.
Rosa Booth, a former classmate of Tsarnaev's at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, added that he did not strike her as a leader; he was more willing to go along with others. "Not a group decision-maker," she said.
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— Tom Winter, Andy Thibault and Jon Schuppe