The exhaustive legal battle in the case of the suspected Boston Marathon bomber is all over, but things are just getting started. Earlier this week, the defense team in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rested its case, but even a glittering history of successful cases may not be enough to save Tsarnaev from the death penalty. Despite attorneys' efforts to portray the 21-year-old as an impressionable teen following in the footsteps of his older brother Tamerlan, the current climate of fear and paranoia triggered by ISIS beheadings and militant jihadist attacks on Western civilians partnered with the prosecution's emotional presentation might have been enough to push jurors over the edge, regardless of the court's instructions.
CNN court reporter Annie O'Neill recalled in a detailed account on Friday how murmurings throughout courtroom hallways painted an overall negative outlook for Tsarnaev and his team. Words like "limp," "lame," and "weak" curtailed any positive projections that may have otherwise cropped up following the defense's final push. The question was never really whether Tsarnaev was guilty — the defense was counting on the fact that jurors made up their minds that he was there and had planted the bomb — but whether Tsarnaev deserves the blame for masterminding the scenario as an equal collaborator, or if the guilt falls squarely on his deceased brother.
"When Tsarnaev’s defense wrapped up Tuesday, after calling just four witnesses, I was expecting a little country and western, Toby Keith belting out 'Is That All You Got?'" joked Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen in a followup on Tuesday.
It might have been appropriate too, especially considering lead defense attorney Judy Clarke's shining track record: the anti-death penalty lawyer (she refers to capital punishment as "legalized homicide") has represented some of the history's worst villains over the years, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui (the "20th" hijacker and al-Qaeda operative involved in the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, and Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner who opened fire in a supermarket parking lot on Jan. 8, 2011, killing six and critically injuring Representative Gabrielle Giffords after the congresswoman was shot in the head. All four of Clarke's most notorious clients were able to avoid the death penalty.
But even Clarke's domineering presence was missing during defense presentation this time around. When the successful lawyer opened her arguments with the phrase "he was there," O'Neill recalled that court onlookers were puzzled. "We knew it was going to be a mismatch [in that moment]," she recalled in a report afterward.
A lackluster showing by the defense wasn't the only thing that may have cemented Tsarnaev's potential death sentence. With a rising climate of agitation and the threat of militant groups like ISIS and Boko Haram looming darkly overhead, the last thing on anyone's mind is the well-being of a suspected terrorist like Tsarnaev.
The burden of guilt may weigh heavier in the court thanks to an online network of jihadist movements that prosecution witness Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testified of last week. "Tsarnaev could just as easily been [radicalized] by someone online," he alleged. According to Levitt, the defense could insist on the 21-year-old's manipulation all it wanted — the existence of ideological web searches and incriminating social media posts, in collaboration with Tsarnaev's understanding of bomb-building thanks to his own research, could be the final nail in the coffin.
As the case moves into the conviction stage of the trial, there is little doubt that the jury will find Tsarnaev guilty of the majority of the 30 counts against him. The real nail-biting begins directly thereafter, as a panel of jurors decides whether or not to sentence the young man to a life behind bars or to a drawn out stay on death row.