Tsarnaev's Former Teacher Asks For Compassion, Despite 'Unforgivable' Crimes

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An old photograph shows an eighth grade Dzhokhar Tsarnaev holding a newborn baby. He has a sort of half-smile on his face — the kind of smile Rebecca Norris remembers well because she says she saw it in court last week.

"He has this little smile that goes all the way to his eyes," Norris said during an interview in Cambridge. "The smile that I saw in court Wednesday was that exact same smile."

In fact, that newborn baby was Norris' 10-day-old daughter. Norris is Tsarnaev's former academic adviser and teacher, now the principal of the Community Charter School of Cambridge. She testified for the defense, describing a beloved student who earned A's in almost all of his classes.

After her testimony, Norris took to Facebook, posting the old photograph and describing her conflicted feelings about Tsarnaev. Cognitive dissonance, as she put it.

"When you love and care for someone, that doesn't stop even when they do the most terrible things," she said. "I really have come to believe that's a universally human response. That that's the nature of compassion."

Norris does not doubt Tsarnaev's guilt. She does not excuse his actions. She is not asking people to forgive him. She writes in an opinion piece for Cognoscenti that Tsarnaev has done the "unforgivable."

"I very much want people to tap into their compassionate side. I think that if we lose compassion because somebody does something terrible then we're letting that terrible action get the better of us," she said.

"But at the same time I think that the only people in the world who owe Dzhokhar any kind of understanding are those 12 jurors."

Norris says there is no easy explanation for how a boy with such potential could become a homegrown terrorist. But she hopes that by coming forward, others can understand how a person can still love someone who's done something unforgivable.

This segment aired on May 4, 2015.


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Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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