Tsarnaev Goes on Trial in Boston Marathon Bombing

Suspect in 2013 terror attack that killed 3 and injured more than 260 faces 30 charges in the bombings and the shooting death days later of a police officer.

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Joe Kebartas holds a sign reading "Death Penalty is Murder" outside the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, March 4, 2015.
Joe Kebartas holds a sign reading "Death Penalty is Murder" outside the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, March 4, 2015. Credit: Reuters

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."

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 United States since the Oklahoma City bombing more than 20 years ago.

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

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. Seventeen of the charges carry the possibility of the death penalty.

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 favored 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 two pressure-cooker bombs exploded, Weinreb said, "The air was filled with the smell of burning sulfur and people's screams."

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 8-year-old Martin Richard, who died in the bombings.

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

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. He died in a shootout with police days after the bombings.

But prosecutors say Dzhokhar was an equal participant who acted of his own free will. They contend the brothers were driven by anger over U.S. wars in Muslim lands.

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.

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.

Attorney Judy Clarke, one of the nation's foremost death penalty specialists, was expected to deliver the opening statement for Tsarnaev.

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.

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