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Death, or Life in Prison? Jury Begins Deciding Tsarnaev's Fate

A jury in Boston began deliberating Wednesday whether to sentence Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the death penalty, or life in prison.
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BOSTON — A jury began deliberating Wednesday whether to impose the death penalty on convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after hearing closing statements from a prosecutor who called him a “terrorist” and a defense lawyer who said execution would not balance the scales of justice.

The arguments began with Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Mellin, who argued that Tsarnaev chose a huge public event held on a holiday marking the Revolutionary War, to make a political statement.

Mellin reminded the jury of surveillance video that captured Tsarnaev placing a bomb in a finish line crowd on April 15, 2013, and waiting a couple minutes before signaling to his brother and co-conspirator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, to proceed.

He reminded them of footage that showed Tsarnaev buying a half-gallon of milk after the bombing.

"The defense will ask you to value the defendant's life but he didn't value the life of other people,” Mellin said, sharing photos of mutilated victims. “His actions have earned him a sentence of death."

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Mellin also reminded the jury of the killing of MIT police officer Sean Collier three days after the bombing, and of a bloody shootout with police in which his brother died. He recalled Tsarnaev’s hours hiding from police in a boat parked behind a home in Watertown, Massachusetts , seriously wounded, contemplating his fate and writing a screed on the boat’s interior surface.

Mellin pointed out a video the jury had viewed, taken by a courthouse security camera, showing Tsarnaev raising his middle finger.

"Who is capable of showing so little remorse? Only a terrorist,” Mellin said.

Tsarnaev’s defense lawyers have tried to portray him as a dupe of his brother, but Mellin dismissed that argument. "Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not the defendant's master. They were brothers in arms," Mellin said.

If Tsarnaev is sentenced to life in prison, he’ll be able to study and write and talk with others, Mellin said.

Mellin was followed by Tsarnaev’s lead defense lawyer, Judy Clarke. She asked the jury not to overlook the death and destruction, but to consider Tsarnaev’s entire life — raised by an itinerant family of refugees from the war-torn Russian Caucuses, and a popular, respectful student in their new home of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She focused on Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a dominant force, a radicalized Muslim in search of a battle. At the time, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still a teenager, she said.

“If not for Tamerlan, this wouldn't have happened. Dzhokhar would never have done this but for Tamerlan,” Clarke said.

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the worst of the worst. And the death penalty is for the worst of the worst," she said.

Clarke recalled testimony from Sistaer Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty nun who said Tsarnaev seemed "genuinely sorry." Clarked argued that Tsarnaev “has potential for redemption,” and that he was “on that path of growth and remorse.”

Clarke told the jury that it would take a unanimous vote on any one of the 17 counts that carry the death penalty to send Tsarnaev to execution. “Each one of you is a safeguard against the death penalty,” she said.

She also tried to assure the jury that a vote for life in the federal supermax prison in Colorado would not be giving Tsarnaev a comfortable existence. He’ll go there and eventually be forgotten, she said. “This isn't a club. This isn't a resort. This is the most rigid place in America."

It is wrong, she said, to think justice can be reached by killing Tsarnaev. Nothing can balance the scales, she said.

"We're asking you to choose life, yes, even for the Boston Marathon Bomber."