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Boston Bombing Trial: Tsarnaev Defense Asks Jury to Send Him to Prison for Life

Convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defense team began its case against his execution on Monday.
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/ Source: NBC News

The defense team for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began to argue its case against his execution on Monday, with one of his lawyers holding up a photo of a federal supermax prison in Colorado and asking a jury to send him there.

"If you sentence him to life, this is where he will be," defense attorney David Bruck said during opening statements in the trial's penalty phase, referring to a photo of the prison in snowy Florence, Colorado. It is home to several convicted terrorists, including 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber."

"Maybe we could've shown you this and stopped," Bruck said. "He'd go here and be forgotten. His legal case would be over for good, and no martyrdom. That might be, that should be, a vote for life."

The jury considering whether Tsarnaev will be put to death is the same one that convicted him of all 30 counts against him earlier this month.

Despite the overwhelming verdict, an execution is not considered a sure thing. The death penalty is not popular in Massachusetts, where a convict has not been executed since 1947.

A Boston Globe poll published Monday showed that less than 20 percent of state residents favored death for Tsarnaev — down from 33 percent in September 2013, five months after the bombings.

The government made its case for death last week. The arguments relied on graphic testimony from victims who were injured and the relatives of those who died.

One prosecutor said Tsarnaev was "determined to be America's worst nightmare" and was unrepentant. The jury was shown a video of Tsarnaev in a holding cell after the bombing, fiddling with his hair, flashing a peace sign and then stabbing a middle finger at the camera.

The defense has argued that Tsarnaev was manipulated by his older brother and co-conspirator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who died in a shootout with police. Bruck described the older Tsarnaev Monday as "angry and aggressive," a radicalized Muslim who served as a stand-in patriarch for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after their troubled emigre parents returned to the Russian Caucasus region, a disillusioning chapter in a "long and complicated" family history.

The younger Tsarnaev, Bruck told the jury Monday, was "a lost teenager with not much motivation to do anything on his own."

"The man who conceived and led this plan is beyond our power to punish. Only his younger brother is left," Bruck said.

Considering what the victims have been through, "You've all probably realized by now that no punishment could be equal," Bruck said. "There is no evening the scales. There’s no point in trying to hurt him as he hurt them because it can’t be done."

Members of Tsarnaev's family arrived in the U.S. in preparation for the defense's case. It was not clear whether any of them will testify on his behalf.

If Tsarnaev gets life in prison, and ends up in the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, he'll join a long roster of convicted terrorists, including not only Moussaoui and Kaczynski but also 1993 World Trade Center bombing co-conspirators Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammed Salameh and Eyad Ismoil; attempted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid; attempted “underwear bomber” Umar Abdulmutallab; and Al Qaeda operatives Iyman Faris and Ahmed Ressam.


— Tom Winter, Andy Thibault and Jon Schuppe