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Boston Bombing News: Penalty Phase of Tsarnaev Trial (Day One)

The first day of proceedings in the penalty phase in the trial of now convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took place on April 21, at Moakley Courthouse in Boston and began at 9.00 am. Initially both the defense and the prosecution were summoned by Judge George O’Toole to a “closed door” meeting in his chambers which lasted for just under one hour. This meeting was followed by the judge’s instructions to the jurors during this phase of the trial.

These instructions comprised of an outline of the definitions of statutory and non-statutory aggravating factors, a reminder that the jury are in no way “required” or “expected” to recommend the death penalty in this case and an assertation that the jury’s decision should not be based on sympathy they may feel for the victims of the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

The Prosecution’s Opening Statements:

Assistant US Attorny Nadine Pellegrini began presenting opening statements for the prosecution at 10.35 am. She began by declaring the crimes of which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted to be “unbearable, indescribable, inexcusable and senseless.” Ms. Pellegrini then went on to speak of the three victims who were killed as a result of the bombing, (Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu), and of Officer Sean Collier who was shot and killed three days later. Much emphasis was given to the manner in which these people died and also to the grief experienced by their families as a result of their deaths. Photographs of the victims were displayed on screen while Pellegrinni spoke.

Mention was then made of those who were injured but survived the bombing. (Although, oddly enough, only Jessica Kensky, Roseann Sdoia, Karen McWaters, Rebekah Gregory and Jeff Bauman were mentioned by name.)

At this point Pelegrinni moved on to say that the “question of guilt had been answered” and that the answer to the question of “why” was to be found in “the entire sum of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s own character and his own actions.” She described the deaths of the victims as “intentional” and described Tsarnaev as “cruel and indifferent.” For these reasons, Pellegrinni said, she believes the death penalty to be an appropriate penalty.

“This is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev”, said Ms. Pellegrini, as a still from a surveillance camera appeared on the screens in the courtroom. This still was obtained from surveillance of Tsarnaev when he was in a holding cell at the courthouse, awaiting his arraignment, in July of 2013. It depicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, extending his middle finger in the direction of the surveillance camera.

Witnesses For the Prosecution:

The first witness for the prosecution during this phase of the trial was called at 11.06 am. Celeste Corcoran answered questions posed by Steve Mellin. Corcoran is now a double amputee as a result of the injuries she sustained at the 2013 marathon. Mellin drew testimony from her regarding her own injuries and those of her daughter, Sydney with the aid of photographs. She was also asked to pinpoint her own location and those of others known to her in photographs taken immediately after the blast.

After a fifteen minute break and a ten minute sidebar the prosecution called their second witness of the day. Gillian Reny, a twenty year old college student, was also among those injured at the 2013 marathon. Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty questioned Reny about her family’s history of attending and competing in the Boston Marathon and also about her experiences on the day she was injured. As had been the case with the previous witness, Ms. Reny was asked to identify herself and others in graphic post-blast photographs.

A video of the scene was shown with sound. The sound had been heavily edited as evidenced by many very brief gaps but people could be heard screaming in the sections the prosecution had chosen to use.

The prosecution’s third witness of the day, William Campbell III, was called by Nadine Pellegrini, a little after 2.00 pm following an hour’s lunch break. Pellegrini questioned Campbell about his sister, Krystle, who died on Boyleston Street as a result of the bombing. Campbell spoke of his sister and his relationship with her and of the impact her death has had on both himself and his parents. Photographs of the Campbell siblings, from childhood to adulhood, were displayed on screens in the courtroom to accompany this witness’s testimony.

William Campbell Snr. was the penultimate witness of the day and his testimony was similar to that of his son. Both referred to the understandable but tragic error made by hospital staff in the aftermath of the bombing which led the Campbell family to initially believe that Krystle had been injured but had survived.

Nichole Gross was the final witness of the day to be called and took the stand at 2.55 pm. Gross and her sister, Erika Brannock, were both injured as a result of the bombing of the marathon and Brannock’s injuries led to an amputation. Steve Mellin’s questions for this witness were similar to those asked of the previous witnesses and centered around details of injuries and the location of victims after the blast. When Gross stepped down at 3.15 pm a brief sidebar was called after which Judge O’Toole indicated that proceedings were done for the day. The defense, as would be expected, did not cross examine any of the day’s witnesses.

This phase in Tsarnaev’s trial is expected to continue throughout this week and into the next.

My Observations:

For the minority within the US who actually oppose the death penalty a glimmer of hope was offered by the small but nevertheless growing number of people protesting this penalty outside the courthouse.

The government/prosecution reached a new low very early in the day when they chose to use a still from a video taken while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was held in a cell at the courthouse prior to his arraignment in July 2013, and in which he is seen making an impolite gesture in the direction of the camera. That the court permitted the use of this still without context left me incredulous and I fail to see the relevance of this exhibit in proceedings concerning whether or not Tsarnaev, now convicted of the bombings, should be subjected to a penalty which amounts to state sponsored murder.

The genuine emotion displayed by the government’s witnesses was heartbreaking as was their recounting of their experiences. In general, however, their testimony came across as heavily directed by the prosecution and was swiftly halted and redirected, often with a distinct lack of sympathy or empathy, when these witnesses seemed in danger of straying from their script. Several times the prosecution had to aid witnesses in identifying both themselves and others in the post-blast photographs displayed in court.

The physical and emotional pain of the victims of the bombing was exploited yet again by the government during these proceedings with the aim of securing another death. It struck me during testimony from Gillian Reny that if there were a shred of decency in federal court then Ms. Reny would have been permitted to leave the stand prior to completing her testimony. Such was her distress. The government’s pursuit of the death penalty within the US is an ugly business in more ways than one.

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