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Boston Bombing News: Phillipos Trial – Tazhayakov Testifies

Robel Phillipos

Robel Phillipos

What can be counted as the second day at trial in the case of  US v Robel Kidane Phillipos began at 9.00 am at Moakley Courthouse in the city of Boston today, (10/07/14), with Judge P. Woodlock presiding, Stephanie Siegmann and John Capin in court for the prosecution and  Susan Church and Derege Demissie for the defense.

Witness Testimony & Cross Examination:

After a brief discussion regarding the fact that the time of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apprehension in Watertown had been erroneously recorded in some court documents, (7.00 pm instead of 8.45 pm), FBI Special Agent Dwight Schwader ( Dept. of Transportation), took the stand. Whilst the prosecution sought to obtain confirmation from SA Schwader that Robel Phillipos was aware that a camera was present in the interview room at the Massachusetts State Police barracks where he was questioned at one point, (in addition to being observed, Robel Phillipos’ questioning could also be listened to by other agents in another room),and where he ultimately signed a “confession”, the defense sought to emphasize their client’s level of cooperation with investigators. It was admitted that Phillipos handed his cell phone to the FBI upon their first request and that he was in fact forthcoming as regards his friendship with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev , providing contact information for all three.

In addition to Phillipos’ interview at the MA SP barracks on  two earlier interviews which took place in an FBI agent’s vehicle at Price Chopper supermarket parking lot in the city of Worcester were detailed. (During the first of these interviews Phillipos’ mother called and asked to speak with her son. Her request was denied and she was asked to call back later.) The first of these interviews was said to have taken nearly two hours and the second little over a half hour. Phillipos’ defense asked SA Schwader to confirm that their client gave the FBI enough information for them to be able to confirm his version of events but the agent’s response was that this had not been a priority at that time and that the FBI’s priority had been the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (I personally found it a little odd that SA Schwader failed to mention Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the FBI’s presumed intention to apprehend him also at this point.)

When asked by Demissie if he remembered Phillipos’ statement regarding his use of marijuana and it’s likely effect on his memory SA Schwader at first said “I do not recall.” A text from Robel Phillipos to a friend, outlining a conversation with FBI agents on his marijuana use served to jog the agent’s memory on this. “I do not recall” was also Schwader’s response when Stephanie Siegmann asked if he had any recollection of Phillipos’ alleged statement  as to his presence at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room on the night of 04/18/13 with Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s room mate. Phillipos’ defense allege that their client told the FBI that “Someone says I was there, so I was there, but I don’t remember.” Schwader’s cross examination concluded at 9.40am.

Detective David Earl from the  Essex County Sheriff’s Department was next to take the stand. Earl is also a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and was present with SA Schwader during an interview with Phillipos at Price Chopper parking lot. When initially requested by the prosecution to describe his conversation with RP, Earl stated “I don’t know what describe means.” (?) Having been reprimanded by Judge Woodlock, Earl went on to speak of the information provided by the defendant on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Azamat Tazakayov and Dias Kadyrbayev. Earl denied that Phillipos ever informed the FBI that he was under the influence of marijuana on 04/18/13. He stated that Phillipos initially told the FBI that no one entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room because the door was locked but later changed his story.

Seemingly, another memory lapse affecting Det. Earl, was in relation to his demeanor during Phillipos’ interview. Whilst Earls’ affidavit states that “no agent raised his voice” during this interview and that Phillipos was treated “respectfully”, Demisse gained Earl’s admission that in fact Earl himself raised his voice and most likely did so when he demanded from Phillipos “were you their bitch?”  (This was actually an inquiry as to whether the defendant had served as “lookout” for Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev.)

The prosecutions questions directed to Det. Earl were mainly concerned with the complete lack of any mention in his notes of text messages between Phillipos and his friends. (And most particularly Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.) The prosecution appeared quite satisfied when Earl responded that the FBI had photographs of these text messages and therefore, no notes were necessary.

FBI Special Agent John Walker took the stand at 10.15 am. He stated that he has been with the FBI for 23 years and that he also serves on the JTTF. The prosecution questioned Walker on the release of photographs of the two alleged suspects in the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Walker confirmed that these photographs were released on 04/18/13 but denied that the FBI knew the names of these suspects until 7.00 am on 04/19/13. He insisted that the FBI did consider other suspects in the bombing in addition to the Tsarnaev brothers and emphasized that the investigation is still both active and expansive.

Phillipos’ defense turned their attention to a photograph which shows Robel Phillipos, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Azamat Tazhayakov , Dias Kadyrbayev and one additional individual seated on a couch in Tazhayakov’s and Kadyrbayev’s New Bedford apartment. The FBI claim that they can prove that this photograph was taken using a cell phone, on Sunday,10th March, 2013. Phillipos’ defense attempted to cast doubt that the FBI could prove the date the photograph in question was taken but offered no specific argument to counter the FBI’s analysis. Walker also spoke at length on the search of the dumpster and the landfill for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack and the search of his dorm room. He described how Phillipos had told the FBI that Tsarnaev and others had played with fireworks one month prior to the bombings, “for fun.”

For me the most notable part of Walker’s testimony was that the FBI have no reason to believe that the bombs which exploded at the Boston Marathon were built in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room or Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s apartment. They do not know where these bombs where constructed or by whom.

A twenty minute break was taken just after 11.00 am and proceedings resumed with the conclusion of Agent Walker’s testimony/cross examination. Demissie, for the defense, asked Walker if agents involved in Phillipos’ interrogation communicated with him whilst the interrogation was ongoing. Walker initially denied that this was the case, but when confronted with evidence of an e-mail from FBI Special Agent Michael Delapea, who questioned Phillipos at the MA SP barracks, admitted that “there may have been e-mail.”

The final FBI Agent to take the stand in Tuesday’s proceedings was Special Agent Micheal Delapea who stated that he has been with the FBI for 24 years and was asked by the defense to describe his extensive training in interrogation techniques. Delapea confirmed to the court that it was in fact his job to obtain confessions. (Mention of “getting to the truth” was then added as a somewhat hasty afterthought!)  He also confirmed that fellow agents had congratulated him on obtaining a “confession” from Robel Phillipos on 04/26/13, at 11.00 am, following a three hour interview.

Delapea spoke of Phillipos alleged admission that he, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev were “freaking out” at the New Bedford apartment on the night of 04/18/13. He mentioned that Phillipos had told him that he had said to Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, “Do what you have to do.”

Photographs of Delapea’s small windowless interview room were shown in court. Delapea told the court that he had informed Phillipos that he was free to leave but that he had locked the door to the interview room. This, Delepea explained, was to calm Phillipos as he was allegedly concerned about the two FBI agent’s waiting outside. (These agents had been said to be waiting to arrest Phillipos on “serious criminal charges” and had been likened to “wolves.”)) When asked by the defense to confirm that the defendant had broken down in tears Delapea said that “there may have been tears”, but that he “really didn’t recall.”

During Delapea’s cross examination by the defense the court learned that Delepea had questioned the defendant about his parents and told him that claiming not to remember was not an acceptable answer. Delapea stated that when he began typing he told the defendant that he wanted this to be his statement. Whilst Delapea claims he frequently checked with Phillipos that his wording met with his approval, the defense claims that Phillipos merely assented with ‘”Yes, you could put that” when questioned. The defense also asked SA Delapea if he suffered a nose-bleed during the interview with Phillipos. The agent responded at first with, (yet another), “I do not recall” but eventually said “I may have done.” (I do not know the relevance of this question but I think we may be sure that the question does have relevance, at least for the defense.)

The prosecution asked Delapea about Phillipos description of fireworks contained in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack. Philipos first response to this during his interrogation was apparently “OK, I saw a firework.” The agent went on to describe how Phillipos eventually remembered seeing a total of seven fireworks. The defendant’s alleged description of the fireworks found in the backpack alleged to be Tsarnaev’s is said to be most accurate.

Counsel then conferred with the judge before Azamat Tazhayakov was escorted into the courtroom at 12.50 pm. Tazhayakov only had time today to confirm his name, residence, (Essex County Jail), and prior friendship with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Dias Kadyrbayev and Robel Phillipos. He confirmed verbally that he had entered into an agreement with the government, upon the advice of his attorneys. Tazhayakov stated that he had “received no promises” from the government but that he had been given to understand that “things might go better for him at sentencing” if he “told the truth.”

Today’s proceedings concluded a little before 1.15 pm and Azamat Tazhayakov is expected to take the stand again at 9.00 am tomorrow. (Wednesday, 8th. October.)


I really do not know if Robel Phillipos was initially untruthful with FBI Agents or not. If he was, I believe this to be in many ways understandable and certainly not deserving of a sentence of the magnitude suggested in his case. It must be remembered that the FBI, as they themselves have demonstrated yet again today, are more than a little economical with the truth and their testimony today, in my opinion, did nothing to inspire any belief in their credibility. From what I learned today it would be easy to believe that Robel Phillipos’ alleged “confession” was in fact coerced and that may very well be the case. The defense attorneys appear to be working hard for their client and doing a great job.

Side Notes:

Khairullozhon Matanov’s attorney was reported to be in the courtroom today although I personally did not see him.

A Status Conference is being held in the case of US v Stephen tomorrow at 2.30 pm. Courtroom 25. Judge Marianne B. Bowler presiding.

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