Tsarneav Defense Team Tries To Make Its Point Before Sentencing

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Three weeks into the Boston Marathon bombing trial, defense attorneys will soon get their turn. Before sentencing, they'll be limited in what they can say to defend admitted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarneav.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Prosecutors are very close to wrapping up their case against admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They're focusing on how Tsarnaev allegedly used online jihadist literature to become radicalized. Soon, the defense will take its turn. And NPR's Tovia Smith explains why defense attorneys will be very limited in what they can say.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The first thing defense attorneys told jurors when this trial started was that what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did was inexcusable. Their strategy has nothing to do with getting him acquitted and everything to do with getting jurors to consider that he just might not deserve the death penalty.

QUIN DENVIR: Nobody is only the worst thing they've ever done.

SMITH: Former federal prosecutor Quin Denvir has worked with Tsarnaev's attorney, Judy Clarke, who's successfully convinced jurors to spare the lives of other notorious defendants by presenting them as more troubled than evil, which Denvir says the Tsarnaev team will do here.

DENVIR: They want to focus on the fact that this is a young man with a full history. And you want to concede the crime and say that there's more to it than that. There's also a person here.

SMITH: The judge has said that kind of argument has to wait till sentencing since it's not relevant to whether Tsarnaev's guilty. But defense attorneys say they can't afford to wait that long, and they've been trying to hint at the idea from day one, like when they got a former friend of Tsarnaev's to admit he was a nice, popular kid and never before violent, and when they made the case that most Tsarnaev's tweets were not about violent extremism but rather normal teenage stuff like cars and girls, suggesting, all the while, that it was Tsarnaev's older brother who was the driving force and real terrorist behind the attacks. Tsarnaev's lawyers will try to advance that story that he was a vulnerable kid as much as a villain.

ALICE LOCICERO: This is a young man who was genuinely a good kid and well-loved and justifiably so. He had good relationships with his teachers, his coaches and his peers.

SMITH: Psychologist Alice LoCicero has just written a book about Tsarnaev and why, quote, "good kids like him turn to terrorism." It's exactly the story defense attorneys want to tell - that Tsarnaev had a troubled family history. And with his father sick, his parents divorcing and leaving the country and finances tight right as he left home for college, Tsarnaev was especially susceptible to the influence of someone like his domineering brother. LoCicero says it's the prototypical way that youngsters become radicalized.

LOCICERO: Mentors that they have convince them that the way to have a meaningful life and a meaningful death is to engage in a violent action, which they understand to be something that will be good for their people, protect their families, level an uneven playing field and so on.

SMITH: Making that case now before sentencing will keep prosecutors bouncing up with objections, but former federal prosecutor Gerry Leone says the defense will keep trying anyway.

GERRY LEONE: It won't surprise me to see them get very creative about calling certain witnesses. And it really doesn't matter whether the court says yes or no and admits it. And it doesn't matter whether the objection is sustained. You've made your point and, in essence, argued your point.

SMITH: Experts say Tsarnaev himself is unlikely to take the stand at least in this phase of the trial. It's hard to know what he's thinking and whether he would express remorse in a way that would help his own case. In court, he appears mostly detached and unemotional, except for when his attorneys elicit a smile as they engage in conversation or offer a gentle hand on his shoulder. That, says Suffolk University law professor Rosanna Cavallaro, is as important as anything a defense witness might say.

ROSANNA CAVALLARO: All that subtle nuance of - look, jurors. We feel comfortable around him. We relate to him like a young man like other young men that we know. He's not a scary monster.

SMITH: Ultimately, not even defense attorneys believe that'll help him avoid a guilty verdict now, but letting jurors convict Tsarnaev is also part of the strategy aimed at sentencing later. Jurors are typically more willing to show mercy when it comes to punishment after they've also already had the chance to be tough on a defendant and declare him guilty. Tovia Smith, NPR News, at the federal court in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.