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Convicted Boston Marathon Bomber Turns to Neuroscience Expert Witness in Sentencing Trial

As the sentencing trial for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev continues, defense attorneys for Tsarnaev called respected neuroscience expert witness in an effort to avoid a death penalty judgment.  Consistent with the defense’s position during the early part of the trial, the expert has been called to provide testimony that minimizes Dzhokhar’s role in planning and executing the attacks.

Prosecutors Point to Unrepentant Behavior

As the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial began, prosecutors attempted to paint the defendant as an unrepentant and willing participant in the Boston Marathon bombing attack.  Tsarnaev was convicted last month on all criminal charges levied against him, including charges of terrorism and conspiracy to deploy weapons of mass destruction against the public.  Prosecutors have alleged throughout the trial that Tsarnaev was equally responsible for the planning and execution of the attacks along with his brother, Tamerlan.

Beyond the evidence used to convict Tsarnaev of the crime, prosecutors have used his recent behavior to show that he remains defiant and without remorse for his actions.  Dzhokhar is responsible for writing a series of notes that prosecutors argue demonstrate his willingness to engage in acts of Islamic terrorism, and was recently photographed flipping a jail cell camera off in anger.  Prosecutors have pointed to the defendant’s activities before, during, and after his trial as signs that he was not unwillingly convinced to take part in the attack by his brother, but instead was an accomplice and equal partner to the crime.

Defense attorneys for Tsarnaev have countered prosecutors by building upon the strategy they employed during trial and calling a neuroscience expert witness to testify that the defendant’s brain was too immature during the planning and execution of the attacks to make him sufficiently culpable as to warrant the death penalty.

Tsarnaev’s Brain Development at Issue in Sentencing

Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health took the stand last week to testify that Dzhokhar’s brain was not fully developed at the time of the attacks.  According to Dr. Giedd, Dzhokhar, who was 19 at the time of the bombing, did not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for planning, impulse control, and judgment.  Neuroscience research indicates that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the late twenties, and as a result, the defendant’s capacity to control aggression or excitement was weak leaving him vulnerable to suggestive influence.

Dr. Giedd told jurors that teens with underdeveloped prefrontal cortex are unable to adequately process risk vs benefit analysis, and are more likely to accept actions that favor short term rewards with little consideration of long term consequences.  Although Dr. Giedd conceded on cross-examination that some brains develop faster than others, and Dzhokhar had the capacity to comprehend the consequences of his actions, his testimony supported the defense’s case that the defendant was developmentally immature and vulnerable to his brother’s influence.

Use of Brain Development Expert Witnesses Growing

The immature brain strategy employed by using Dr. Giedd as a neuroscience expert witness is not uncommon as defense attorneys across the country have incorporated brain development into serious offense trials.  Advances in neuroscience provide opportunity for neuro expert witnesses to inform jurors about potential brain development issues or defects that can influence judgment, decision-making, and ultimately behavior.  As in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case, neuro expert testimony is not always used to exonerate the defendant, but is deployed in an effort to reduce sentencing.

In this case, Tsarnaev’s legal team turned to Dr. Giedd’s expert testimony to lend scientific credence to the point they have hammered home since the high-profile trial began: Dzhokhar committed the crimes of which he was accused, but he lacked the necessary desire and intent to plan and execute a terrorist attack without the influence of his older brother.  Considering Dzhokhar’s brain development and the influence his older brother had over him, defense attorneys have argued that life in prison is the more appropriate sentence rather than death.

Boston Marathon Bomber Defense Team Calls Four Expert Witnesses

Defense attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rested their case this week after building a case with the testimony of four expert witnesses.  The Tsarnaev defense argues that the young man was not the lead conspirator of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, but instead was manipulated by his older brother into participating in the attack.  With the defense resting, the case will go to jury for a verdict on guilt and a determination on whether or not Tsarnaev is eligible to receive the death penalty if convicted.

Attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Point to Older Brother

Throughout the trial of accused marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the defense team has conceded his involvement in the commission of the attack that killed 3 people and wounded more than 260 during the 2013 Boston Marathon.  However, defense attorneys argue that Tsarnaev is not guilty of the more than 30 charges against him because he was coerced by his older brother into committing the crime.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 6-years Dzhokhar’s senior, has been the focus of the defense team for allegedly planning the crime and encouraging Dzhokhar to join by instilling anti-American and terrorist sentiments in him prior to the act.  Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police while the brothers were on the run form police after the attack.

In order to bolster its defense, Dzhokhar’s legal team called four expert witnesses to reconstruct the details of the attack planning process that demonstrate Tamerlan largely acted alone before soliciting his younger brother’s help to carry out the act.

Boston Marathon Bomber Defense Calls Four Expert Witnesses

With the prosecution resting its case after calling 92 witnesses, including several expert witnesses, over the course of 15 days, Tsarnaev’s defense team presented a relatively short and succinct two-day case last week by calling only 4 expert witnesses to the stand. Each of the four following defense experts was called to shift blame away from the defendant and towards his older brother who allegedly planned and organized the attack:

  • Computer forensic expert witness Mark Spencer took the stand to testify about the Internet searches on bomb making made by the Tsarnaev brothers leading up to the attack. According to Spencer, the significant majority of Internet searches seeking information about the construction of homemade bombs were made from Tamerlan’s personal computer, not Dzhokhar’s.  Additionally, Spencer testified that Tamerlan’s Internet search history consisted of jihadist literature, including al-Qaeda’s English-language magainze, Inspire.  Dzhokhar’s computer, on the other hand, had only two references to jihad in its search history prior to the attacks.
  • FBI field photographer Michelle Gamble testified as an expert witness on the items recovered from Tamerlan’s apartment during the subsequent investigation of the attack. According to Gamble, all of the evidence of bomb-making and jihadist literature were found in Tamerlan’s possession, not Dzhokhar’s.
  • Gerry Grant, a cell phone analyst expert witness, took the stand to tell jurors that on two occasions when Tamerlan purchased the materials necessary to make the bombs, Dzhokhar’s phone was in a different location. In each case, Dzhokhar’s phone was used in southern Massachusetts while Tamerlan purchased items north of Boston and in New Hampshire.
  • Finally, defense lawyers for Dzhokhar called FBI fingerprint expert Elena Graff to explain to jurors that the defendant’s fingerprints were not on any of the materials used in the attack. Instead, the bomb-making materials and gun-cleaning equipment recovered from the Tsarnaev home only had Tamerlan’s fingerprints.  Further, Graff testified that all of the items recovered from the blast site in Boston had Tamerlan’s fingerprints and not Dzhokhar’s.

Taken together, the four expert witnesses were used to leave jurors with the impression that Tamerlan and not Dzhokhar planned the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.  The defendant, who did not take the stand, has been portrayed as a participant but not mastermind in what is likely an effort to avoid the death penalty for his role in the attack.  Both sides reiterated their position in closing arguments early this week, leaving jurors to deliberate Dzhokhar’s fate over the coming days.

Boston Marathon Bomber Trial Features Terrorism Expert Witness

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.