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Defense Looks For Ways To Make Admitted Boston Bomber More Sympathetic


Defense lawyers are doing what they can for the man they admit was a Boston Marathon bomber. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on trial.


And a contentious issue is what they will see of a handwritten note that prosecutors consider a confession. Jury members saw pictures of it yesterday.

INSKEEP: The question is whether they will see the note in real life, which matters because it was written on the side of the boat where Tsarnaev hid until his capture. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Ever since defense attorneys admitted on day one of trial that Tsarnaev was the bomber, they've sat mostly silently through testimony of unspeakable carnage. That they don't dispute. What they do take issue with is whether Tsarnaev was the same kind of violent Islamist extremist that his brother was. Then they're trying to poke holes in what an FBI agent cast as radical messages sent from Tsarnaev's Twitter account. For example, one tweet that the agent said was quoting an Islamist terrorist recruiter was actually quoting the Quran, the defense said. Another tweet about hosting a party on 9/11, Tsarnaev's lawyer said, was from a comedy bit about, quote, "things you don't yell." And his cover photo, presented as Mecca, Tsarnaev's attorney said, was actually his native Chechnya. She also got the FBI agent to concede that most of the thousand or so tweets Tsarnaev sent were just banter about girls, cars, sleep and food, like the one he wrote about a cheeseburger.

MARTIN WEINBERG: The strategy is to try to humanize him in just small ways.

SMITH: Longtime Boston defense attorney Martin Weinberg says it's all aimed at sentencing - when Tsarnaev, if convicted, would face the death penalty.

WEINBERG: The more they can normalize his 19-year-old conduct, the better their chances when they ask the same jury to save his life.

BRAYTON SHANLEY: The death penalty's merciless. So we stand here in the name of mercy.

SMITH: A small group of anti-death penalty protesters outside court, including Brayton and Suzanne Shanley, said they hoped the strategy would work to spare Tsarnaev's life.

B. SHANLEY: And the tweets, yeah, he's just a kid. He's doing all sorts of things that kids do. And all his friends say he was just a regular dude, that there's some evidence to suggest that he's not hard-line at all.

SUZANNE SHANLEY: Jesus calls for mercy, not retaliation.

RICHARD ANTHONY: No, no - well, no, no. Well, no, see, but it's not retaliation, all right. It's the just taking of a life.

SMITH: Richard Anthony was one of several walking by who said putting Tsarnaev to death would be justified.

ANTHONY: Unfortunately, people have blown up. And people don't have legs. And he put a bomb behind a little kid. The heinousness of the crime perhaps cries out for, you know, something a little more robust.

SMITH: Prosecutors will try to underscore the point with Tsarnaev's boat note that justifies killing Americans as retribution for Muslims killed overseas. Defense attorneys want jurors to see the whole boat that was riddled with bullet holes and covered with Tsarnaev's blood. As Weinberg says, they're hoping it'll evoke even just a tinge of sympathy.

WEINBERG: There's only so much the defense can do to try to detoxify this evidence, to try to make their client, you know, less ugly to the normal jury.

SMITH: Ultimately, it would take just one juror unwilling to put the 21-year-old to death, and Tsarnaev would instead automatically get life in prison with no parole. Tovia Smith, NPR News, at the federal courthouse in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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