April 16, 2015 - Members of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's family tell TIME they tried in vain to dismiss his defense lawyers.
Throughout the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old who was convicted last week of bombing the Boston
Marathon in 2013, his family resisted the urge to speak out publicly in
his defense. Tsarnaev’s defense team had advised them not to grant
interviews, they say, as it could risk his chances at trial. But when
the jury issued its guilty verdict on April 8, convicting him on 17
counts that could each carry the death penalty, some of his relatives
decided to go public with their outrage.On the evening of April 14, three members of the Tsarnaev
family met at a café in the city of Grozny, close to their ancestral
home in southern Russia, and told a TIME reporter how the trial had torn
their family apart, how helpless they felt against what they see as an
American conspiracy against them and, above all, how they still hope to
convince Tsarnaev to fire his legal team and seek to overturn the
verdict on appeal.“It would be so much easier if he had
actually committed these crimes,” says his aunt Maret Tsarnaeva. “Then
we could swallow this pain and accept it.”
But two years after
the bombing that killed three people and wounded hundreds near the
race’s finish line on April 15, 2013, they still refuse to admit
Tsarnaev’s guilt. From their homes in Chechnya
and Dagestan, two predominantly Muslim regions of Russia, some of his
family members have tried to convince Tsarnaev to fire his
court-appointed lawyer, Judy Clarke, who has taken a surprising approach
to his defense.
In one of her first arguments before the jury
after entering a not-guilty plea, Clarke said that her client is indeed
responsible for the “senseless, horrific, misguided acts.” But in
committing these crimes, she argued that he was acting under the
direction of his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout
with authorities soon after the bombing.
This line of defense has
outraged many of Tsarnaev’s relatives, who have tried to convince him
to dismiss Clarke and ask for a lawyer who will argue his innocence.
“Why do we even need defense attorneys if they just tell the jury he is
guilty?” his aunt asks. “What’s the point?”
Like many observers
of the case in Russia, the Tsarnaev family has claimed — without
providing any meaningful evidence — that the bombing was part of a U.S.
government conspiracy intended to test the American public’s reaction to
a terrorist threat and the imposition of martial law in a U.S. city.
“This was all fabricated by the American special services,” Said-Hussein
Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber’s uncle, tells TIME. A panel of 12
jurors in Boston reached the verdict after weeks of testimony from some 90 witnesses and 11 hours of deliberations spread over two days.
mother, Zubeidat, made similar claims of a conspiracy soon after his
arrest, but she seems to have come around since then to the strategy
that her son’s lawyers have taken at trial. As a result, the family
appears to have suffered a rancorous split. While the brothers’ paternal
relatives, who spoke to TIME on Wednesday, have demanded a new legal
team, their mother has refused to call for Clarke’s dismissal. “The
mother won’t let us do it,” says Hava Tsarnaeva, the brothers’
great-aunt in Chechnya. “She won’t listen to reason.”
Their only real means of pressuring her is through Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, a native of Chechnya
who now lives in neighboring Dagestan. But he seems to have taken his
wife’s side on the quality of their son’s defense. “As frightening as it
is to admit, Anzor has been his wife’s zombie all his life, from the
first day they met,” says his sister Maret.
In their desperation
to reach Tsarnaev during the trial, his paternal relatives have tried
sending letters, arranging phone calls and even encouraging a friend to
go to the Boston
courtroom and cry out to Tsarnaev during a hearing. But all of these
efforts failed to reach him, they say, let alone convince him to fire
Their focus now has turned to outside help,
primarily from rights activists and international institutions, though
these efforts also have little chance of success. On Wednesday, they met
with a leading rights activist in Chechnya, Heda Saratova, in the hope
of filing an appeal in the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Saratova informed them that the U.S. is not a party to the court’s
founding treaty, and therefore does not accept its jurisdiction.
hearing the news, Maret Tsarnaeva, the aunt, let out a laugh through
her tears. “So I guess the U.S. has really proven its exceptionalism in
this case,” she says, bitterly. “It’s a closed circle.” And it leaves
his family no choice but to wait for April 21, when the sentencing phase
of the trial will consider whether Tsarnaev should face the death
penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison.