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Lawyers Try to Soften Tsarnaev's Image to Spare Him From Death

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers called former classmates and teachers to talk about the boy they knew long before the Boston Marathon bombing.
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/ Source: NBC News

After spending much of the week building a portrait of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's domineering older brother, defense attorneys shifted back to the defendant himself on Wednesday, calling former teachers and classmates to help soften his image as a cold-hearted killer.

The point is to save the younger Tsarnaev, 21, from the death penalty by persuading the jury that he was manipulated by his radicalized Muslim brother into participating in the April 15, 2013 bombing, in which three people died and 260 were injured. The brothers, immigrants from the Russian Caucasus region, also killed an MIT police officer in the ensuring manhunt, which culminated in a shootout in which the older Tsarnaev, Tamerlan, 26,died in a police shootout.

Wednesday's testimony was remarkable in how starkly it contrasted with what the public has come to know about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as aloof and unrepentant.

Some witnesses cried on the stand Wednesday as they recalled him in his early teens as an intelligent, easy-going student who played sports, liked to party and showed no signs of embracing radical Islam.

"Super kind, really smart, quick to learn," said Tracey Gordon, who taught Tsarnaev at the Cambridge Street Upper School from 2003 to 2005.

"Well behaved. Teachers loved him," added Rebecca Norris, principal of the Community Charter School of Cambridge, which Tsarnaev abruptly left in the middle of the ninth grade after his mother disagreed with his being sent home for not wearing the right color pants.

Norris seemed happy to talk about her former pupil, smiling as she testified. "He wasn't a rebel," she said. "If you asked him to do something, he'd do it."

Tiarrah Dottin, who met Tsarnaev as a freshman at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and lived in a dorm next to his at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, wept when she was shown a photo of them hugging at a party. "He was fun, laid back, friendly," Dottin said.

On Thursday, Tsarnaev's defense team will likely move to Tsarnaev's family. Five relatives, flown in from abroad, are expected to take the stand.


— Tom Winter, Andy Thibault, Susan Kroll and Jon Schuppe