Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defence admits guilt at Boston Marathon bombing trial

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went on trial Wednesday as victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack filled the courtroom. Prosecutors argued he planted a bomb designed to "tear people apart and create a bloody spectacle," while defence lawyers admitted his guilt.

Surviving suspect faces 30 charges, 17 of which carry the death penalty

Boston Marathon bombing trial

8 years ago
Duration 3:12
Trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began Wednesday with a surprising admission from his defence lawyer, Paul Hunter reports

Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went on trial Wednesday, with prosecutors saying he used a backpack to plant a bomb designed to "tear people apart and create a bloody spectacle" and defence lawyers admitting he carried out the attack.

His life on the line, a shaggy-haired Tsarnaev, 21, stared straight ahead as prosecutor William Weinreb launched into his opening statement in the most closely watched terrorism trial in the U.S. since the Oklahoma City bombing more than 20 years ago.

Prosecutors tried to show in their opening arguments that they have enough evidence to prove their case, CBC's Paul Hunter reported from court. 

The air was filled with the smell of burning sulfur and people's screams.- William Weinreb, prosecutor

"They have all kinds of evidence. They have video of Dzhokhar dropping his backpack behind the eight-year-old that was killed," Hunter said. "He makes a phone call to his brother and then all the heads snap left, you assume upon seeing the first explosion down the street."

The defence said they won't sidestep his guilt, calling the attack senseless, although Tsarnaev has entered a plea of not guilty. The prevailing theory among legal analysts is that this trial will be about whether Tsarnaev lives or dies, as 17 of the 30 charges laid against him carry the possibility of the death penalty. 

"We take no issue with the facts from the ground that week," Hunter quotes Judy Clarke, one of America's foremost
death-penalty defence attorneys. "It WAS him. So why are we here? Where we differ is, Why? How did we get from this to this?" Clark asked, holding up a photograph of Tsarnaev as a happy teenager, followed by one of him and his brother Tamerlan at the time of the attack. Older brother Tamerlan died in a shootout with police days after the bombings.

Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left, is shown in a courtroom sketch next to Judge George O'Toole on the first day of jury selection on Jan. 5. (Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters)

"The evidence will not establish and we will not argue that Tamerlan put a gun to Dzhokhar's head or that he forced him to join in the plan," Clarke said. "But you will hear evidence about the kind of influence that this older brother had."

Three people were killed and more than 260 hurt when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the marathon's finish line seconds apart on April 15, 2013.

Suspect shows no reaction in court

Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who arrived from Russia more than a decade ago, faces 30 charges in the bombings and the shooting death days later of a police officer.

"He believed that he was a soldier in a holy war against Americans," Weinreb said. "He also believed that by winning that victory, he had taken a step toward reaching paradise. That was his motive for committing these crimes."

The prosecutor described how 8-year-old Martin Richard stood on a metal barrier with other children so he could get a good view of the runners.

"The bomb tore large chunks of flesh out of Martin Richard," and the boy bled to death on the sidewalk as his mother looked on helplessly, Weinreb told the jury, with the youngster's parents in the courtroom.

After the bombings, Tsarnaev "acted like he didn't have a care in the world," the prosecutor said. Weinreb said Tsarnaev went back to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and hung out with his friends.

"While victims of the bombing lay in the hospital and learned that they would have to have their limbs chopped off to save their lives, the defendant pretended that nothing had happened," Weinreb said.

Tsarnaev slouched in his seat and showed no reaction as Weinreb spoke, not even when the prosecutor described how Dzhokhar ran over his brother with a stolen Mercedes and dragged the body 50 feet during the furious shootout with police.

After opening remarks the first witness called was Thomas Grilk, the executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the marathon. 

Grilk said that up to a half-million spectators turn out for the race each year, with people lining the streets in cities and towns along the 42-kilometre course and huge crowds near the finish line in Boston.

Victims in court

About two dozen victims of the Boston attack took up the entire left-hand side the courtroom.

Weinreb said Tsarnaev carried a bomb in a backpack, and it was "the type of bombs favoured by terrorists because it's designed to tear people apart and create a bloody spectacle."

Sketching out the horrific scene on the streets after the bombs exploded, Weinreb said: "The air was filled with the smell of burning sulfur and people's screams."

Dzokhar Tsarnaev, seen in a photo provided April 19, 2013, by the FBI, survived a confrontation with police, while his older brother was killed in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. (FBI/Associated Press)

Just before the jury was brought in, the judge rejected a fourth request from Tsarnaev's lawyers to move the trial out of Boston.

Among the victims in the courtroom was Heather Abbott, who lost a leg in the attack. Also in the group were Denise and Bill Richard, the parents of eight-year-old Martin Richard, who died in the bombings.

The media is watching court proceedings from monitors in adjacent courtrooms, but no pictures or video is allowed.

Two dramatically different portraits of the former university student are expected to emerge during the trial.

Influenced by brother

Was he a submissive, adoring younger brother who only followed directions given by his older, radicalized brother? Or was he a willing, active participant in the attacks?

Tsarnaev's lawyers have made it clear they will try to show that at the time of the attack, Tsarnaev, then 19, looked up to his older brother, Tamerlan, 26, and was heavily influenced by him. They plan to portray Tamerlan as the mastermind of the attack.

But prosecutors say Dzhokhar was an equal participant who acted of his own free will. 

Tsarnaev's lawyers fought right up until the last minute to have the trial moved outside of Massachusetts, arguing that the emotional impact of the bombings ran too deep and too many people had personal connections to the case. Their requests were rejected.

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A panel of 10 women and eight men was chosen Tuesday to hear the case after two long months, interrupted repeatedly by snowstorms and the requests to move the trial.

The trial will be split into two phases — one to decide guilt or innocence, the other to determine punishment. If Tsarnaev is convicted, the jury will decide whether he gets life in prison or death.

The trial is expected to last three to four months.

The list of witnesses remains sealed, but among those expected to testify are first responders who treated the wounded, marathon spectators and victims who were badly injured in the explosions.

Clarke has saved a string of high-profile clients from the death penalty, including Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; and Jared Loughner, the man who killed six people and gravely wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

With files from CBC's Paul Hunter