This week the high profile trial of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev featured expert witness testimony from a counter-terrorism expert called by prosecutors. Defense attorneys representing Tsarnaev countered the terrorism expert with a vigorous cross-examination accusing him of portraying the defendant as a terrorist in order to sensationalize the trial and prejudice jurors. Tsarnaev faces the death penalty if convicted for his actions to bomb the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Accused Boston Marathon Bomber on Trial
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of conspiring with his brother to plant two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, has pled not guilty to the more than 30 counts against him, including murder and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to cause death, faces the death penalty if convicted. Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan, became the prime suspects immediately after the two bombs exploded during the 2013 marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 260. Tamerlan died from wounds sustained during a subsequent shootout with police, but Dzhokhar was apprehended after being found hiding in a boat in the Boston area.
Over the last two years, police and prosecutors have gathered evidence to accuse Dzhokhar of over 30 counts of murder, attempted murder, terrorism, and conspiracy to cause death using weapons of mass destruction. After a lengthy jury selection process, the guilt phase of Dzhokhar’s trial is underway and expected to rest later this week. Depending on the verdict, prosecutors will then pursue the death penalty during a separate sentencing phase of the trial using the same group of jurors. Using an expert witness to identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a terrorist will not only aid the prosecution during the guilt phase of the trial, but will also provide an argument for aggravating circumstances that warrants consideration of the death penalty.
Prosecution Expert Witness Identifies Terrorist Behavior in Marathon Bomber
Earlier this week, prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing trial called Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington DC think tank The Washington Institute. The Washington Institute analyzes United States policy in the Middle East, and Levitt has established himself as an expert in terrorist activities and ideals. Levitt’s primary role in the trial was to examine a note written by Tsarnaev as he hid inside a boat while hiding from authorities after the marathon bombing. The note, which is written in pencil on the wood lining the inside of the boat, criticized US activities in Muslim countries, asked Allah to make him a “Shaheed” (martyr), and included the phrase, “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”
While taking the stand as a terrorism expert witness, Levitt told jurors that the themes in Tsarnaev’s note are common among members of the global jihadi movement and echo ideas found lectures given by Anwar al-Awlaki – an American-born member of radical Islam with links to al-Qaida who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Prosecutors argue that Tsarnaev’s note makes it clear that he and his brother saw the attack as a means of retaliation against US policy in the Middle East, and Levitt’s expert testimony supported the claim that the brothers “twisted Islamic principles” in a manner consistent with organizations defined as terrorists in the US. Levitt’s terrorism expert witness testimony supplemented evidence gathered by the FBI from Tsarnaev’s computer and home that the prosecution has used to argue the defendant is an extremist who engaged in terroristic activities.
Defense Accuses Terrorism Expert Witness of Sensationalizing Case
Defense attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have conceded that he was involved with the marathon bombing in 2013, but have argued that he was driven by the will of his older brother Tamerlan who planned the attack. During cross-examination of the prosecution’s terrorism expert witness, Dzhokhar’s defense team criticized Levitt for attempting to sensationalize the trial by painting their client as a radical Muslim extremist, prejudicing the jurors against him. Accusing Levitt of an opportunist who was looking to gain notoriety by testifying in a high profile trial, Tsarnaev’s defense team pried into the terrorism expert’s claims that the defendant was a radical extremist and not simply a teenager who was heavily influenced by his brother’s ideals.
The defense, which seems primarily focused on avoiding the death penalty, attempted to neutralize, or minimize, Levitt’s terrorism expert opinion by attacking his motives for taking the stand during the trial. While not an uncommon strategy when cross-examining expert witnesses, defense attorneys will likely need to bolster their position that Dzhokhar was simply an accomplice to his brother’s schemes with expert testimony of their own. The trial will continue throughout the week as the defense takes center stage.