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Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Begins For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went on trial Wednesday for helping to plant two bombs that exploded at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
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BOSTON — Nearly two years after twin blasts rocked the finish line of the Boston Marathon, alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faced a jury for the first time Wednesday, sitting stoically through graphic depictions of bloody carnage and a federal prosecutor's description of him as "a soldier in a holy war against Americans."

The trial's long opening day also included a startling admission by Tsarnaev's defense lawyer that "it was him" in surveillance videos dropping a bomb-laden backpack on crowded Boylston Street.

But the most riveting accounts came from those who lived through the April 15, 2013 attack. They recalled the blasts shattering glass and severing limbs, and the panicked search for help through clouds of dust and debris.

"I thought that was the day I would die," said Rebeckah Gregory, who was with her young son, Noah, on the sidelines, watching for her mother-in-law to run past, when a blast tossed her to the pavement. She called out for her son, then noticed her mangled left leg and crushed left hand, and glimpsed the body of Krystle Campbell, 29, one of three people killed. The memory brought Gregory, who now walks with a prosthetic device, to tears. "I saw the terror on everyone's faces," she said.

Rebekah Gregory and Pete DiMartino practice walking down the isle with the apparatus she will use to help her walk during their wedding ceremony.Ilana Panich-Linsman / for NBC News

Near Gregory was Colton Kilgore, who said he was "blown through the air" while taking pictures. He smelled gunpowder and flesh. Despite a perforated eardrum, "I could hear muffled sounds and the screaming," Kilgore testified. His sister-in-law was bleeding through a severed artery.

Kilgore began shooting video, played to the court, that showed maimed bodies, bloody shrapnel and eerie wafts of smoke.

Several jurors recoiled at the images, one of a series of clips presented by the prosecution to portray the destruction. Tsarnaev, on the other hand, betrayed no emotion. He continued to stare ahead.

The visceral imagery in the trial's first day was just a prologue to what is expected to be a painstaking retelling of an attack that will reawaken horrific memories and raise the possibility of a death penalty case in a state that hasn't executed anyone since 1947.

The day began with Tsarnaev, wearing a striped shirt and dark blue sports jacket, sitting motionless and gazing forward as Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb outlined the government's case, which seeks to portray the bombings as the result of a deliberate plan hatched by Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police.

Weinreb painted a detailed picture of the moments before the explosions, with thousands gathered along the race sidelines as a Boston Red Sox game let out. He also presented a portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a duplicitous character who kept his violent tendencies secret from his closest friends and mingled among spectators before unleashing mayhem.

"He wasn't there to watch the marathon. He had a backpack over his shoulder and inside that backpack he had a bomb," Weinreb said. That bomb, made of a pressure cooker, was "the type of bomb preferred by terrorists."

Weinreb went on to describe how Tsarnaev walked in front of the Forum restaurant and set the backpack "right behind a row of children." One of those children, 8-year-old Martin Richard, would die from the blast after Tsarnaev allegedly used a remote control to detonate the device.

The bombs, set a block apart, exploded simultaneously, killing three people: Richard, Campbell, and 23-year-old Lingzi Lu. In the manhunt that followed, an MIT police officer, 26-year-old Sean Collier, was shot to death, allegedly by the brothers.

Four days after the attack, Tsarnaev, 19 at the time, was found hiding in a boat stored in a backyard, wounded by police gunfire.

Jurors spent much of Wednesday's testimony watching video footage of the bombings, the first of which detonated outside a running shoe store, Marathon Sports, the second in front of the Forum. They viewed images of aftermath, as runners scattered and police officers ran into the street. Through it all, Tsarnaev maintained his expressionless stare.

Prosecutor William Weinreb makes the opening statement in the trial of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on March 4.
Prosecutor William Weinreb makes the opening statement in the trial of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on March 4.Art Lien

Tsarnaev's lead defense lawyer, Judy Clarke, did not dispute many of the prosecution's main points. "We do not attempt to sidestep Dzhokhar's responsibility for his actions in his trial," she told the jury in her opening statements.

The trial is expected to hinge less on Tsarnaev's guilt — to be determined in the first phase — as much as whether he gets the death penalty — to be determined in the second phase.

Clarke conceded that her client was caught on surveillance cameras dropping the backpack, and that the bomb and a second one detonated by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, "extinguished three lives." She described the bombings and the deadly manhunt that followed as "a series of senseless acts carried out by two brothers."

But Clarke also sought to portray Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a follower of his older brother, who masterminded the plot. Clarke showed a photo of the brothers when they were much younger, and asked jurors to imagine how the younger Tsarnaev became so violent. She answered by saying Tamerlan was the one who bought the pressure cookers, BB gun pellets and fireworks used to assemble the bombs.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's path was‎ "a path borne of his brother, paid by his brother," Clarke said. Dzhokhar, she said, "bought into his brother's plan."

She concluded, "It is going to be a lot to ask of you but we ask you to keep your hearts and minds open."

Some of Tsarnaev's relatives and many of his alleged victims sat in the audience. To Tsarnaev's left sat 12 jurors and six alternates, chosen in a two-month selection process that included multiple requests by defense lawyers to move the trail out of Boston, where they said Tsarnaev couldn't get a fair trial in a city where nearly everyone was impacted by the bombing or its aftermath.

Weinreb, in his opening statements, led jurors through what he described as Tsarnaev's increasing attraction to Islamic militancy in the months before the attack: an interest in "terrorists' music and songs," researching bomb-making, collecting a "virtually complete" library of the al Qaeda-linked magazine Inspire, the purchase of a handgun.

The prosecutor also walked jurors through the government's version of the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers in the days after the bombing: the killing of Collier with a shot between the eyes, the carjacking of an SUV, a police chase, a gunfight in which the brothers tossed two pressure-cooker bombs at officers.

After opening statements, the prosecution began its case by calling its first witness, Thomas Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which operates the Boston Marathon. The race, held on Patriot's Day on the third Monday in April, is a local holiday marking the battle of Lexington and Concord, with schools out and many workers with the day off.

The weather on April 15, 2013 was unseasonably warm — "a good day to run and a good day to watch," Grilk said.

Then came accounts of how that festive atmosphere suddenly turned to horror.

Shane O’Hara, a store manager at Marathon Sports, said he was standing right outside the entrance when a bomb went off, shattering a nearby pane of glass and kicking up a plume of dust. Jurors watched an accompanying video that showed O'Hara trying a tourniquet around an injured woman's leg, with screams for help in the background.

"Things that haunt me is making decisions on who needed help first," O'Hara said, nearly overcome with emotion. "It was a scene like Saving Private Ryan or Platoon, something you thought you would never see in your life."

Karen McWatters said she'd just posted a picture of her with Campbell, her friend, on Facebook, when the blasts rocked the finish line. One of McWatters' legs was badly injured — it was later amputated — but she was more focused on Campbell. McWatters drew close to her friend. "She very slowly said that her legs hurt," McWatters said. "Shortly after that, her hand went limp in mine and she never spoke again."

Sydney Corcoran, a college student who was there to watch her aunt run, said she was at the finish line for 10 minutes when "everything went up in smoke." The blast shredded her right foot, which was bleeding massively. She heard men saying she wasn't going to make it. "I remember thinking, 'This is it, I’m gonna die, I’m not gonna make it,'" Corcoran said. "It just felt so cold."

She then remembered thinking, "How could this be real? Everything was so happy two seconds ago."

— with Andy Thibault