(BOSTON) — For weeks Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev showed no emotion during heartrending testimony from his maimed victims or the loved ones of those left dead.
He didn’t flinch as videos of the bloody aftermath of his bomb were played in court that showed anguished screams twisting the faces of two young women he was convicted of killing, along with the last breaths of a dying eight-year-old boy.
But on Monday, for the first time, the convicted killer reached for a box of tissues and dabbed away tears as a string of female relatives from Russia took the stand in his defense – many who had not seen him in years.
One, his aunt Patimat Suleimanova, was so distraught when testifying that she began weeping uncontrollably, sobs echoing through the courtroom, until she had to be removed.
The unusual show of emotion from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes in the middle of the penalty phase for the 21-year-old, who could be put to death for his part in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Tsarnaev was convicted on all 30 counts against him related to the bombing last month.
Tsarnaev’s Russian relatives have been in the U.S. since April 21, fitted with ankle bracelets and living under “hotel arrest,” federal officials said. The Russians were permitted to travel to the U.S. on S-visas, or Significant Public Benefit Parole, issued to aliens considered a security risk who were subpoenaed to testify. A male relative was sent back to Dagestan after he admitted to Customs officials at Logan Airport that he fought alongside Chechen Muslim militants.
On Monday, a series of Tsarnaev family photos taken in Dagestan were shown to the jury: Dzhokhar as a baby in a cousin’s arms, him as a boy smiling as he finished his homework. Naida Sulemimanov told the court there was “never an occasion when there wasn’t a smile on his face.”
“I am seeing my brother for the first time in so many years and it is not easy,” Sulemimanov, now an ICU nurse at a hospital outside of Moscow, said of her cousin through tears.
Tsarnaev’s gray-haired aunt Shakhurzat Suleimanova rocked back and forth with a handkerchief clutched to her face, stealing glances at her nephew, who pressed a tissue to his eyes.
“He was a good boy,” she said, “a very quiet boy.” She said Tsarnaev used to be so shy that if someone asked him a question he would turn his face away.
Another cousin, Raisat Suleimanova, said Dhzhokhar “was a sunny child….If you looked at him, you would want to smile, even if you didn’t feel good at that time. I could only say good things about Dzhokhar.”
She also cried, remembering how Dzhokhar was a sensitive child who wept watching “Simba’s father die” in The Lion King movie.
The relatives’ testimony appeared designed to humanize Tsarnaev as well as bolster defense claims that he was increasingly under the influence of his older brother, Tamerlan.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s sisters said she was once a fun-loving woman who wore fur coats and flashy jewelry. But in a sudden shift in 2010, she became the only member of her Muslim family who covered her head with a black hijab.
“When she came like that, we were in shock,” Shakhurzat Suleimanova said of her sister. Their family, she said, was Muslim but not in any way radical. “We prayed. We fasted. No people like that.”
For all the tears, the prosecution answered with a spurt of terse words that came from assistant United States Attorney William Weinreb as he cross-examined one of the relatives, Suleimanova, about her description of her cousin’s “kindness,” which she said “made everyone around him kind.”
Weinreb asked her, “You would agree that the bombing of innocent people is not an act of kindness?”
The defense objected to the question and federal judge George O’Toole sustained the objection.
“You would agree that a person who cries at the death of a cartoon character but was indifferent to the suffering and deaths of hundreds of people…” Weinreb tried again, but was again cut off with a defense objection, also sustained.
Prior to Monday, Tsarnaev’s defense had mainly focused on portraying Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, as the leader of the bombing plot and Dzhokhar as only following his older brother’s lead. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police four days after the bombing.
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