STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, jurors began deliberations today in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He has admitted to bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013 along with his brother, who later died. About all that, there's no doubt. What's in question is what to think of the defendant. Closing arguments yesterday left jurors with two sharply diverging pictures as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Prosecutors cast Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a violent Islamist extremist, bent on punishing Americans to avenge Muslims killed by U.S. troops overseas. They reminded jurors of how brutally the bomb he planted shredded the bodies of innocent people, including an 8-year-old boy who was killed. His father rubbed his eyes as prosecutors described the boy's little body eviscerated. And yet, prosecutors said Tsarnaev was entirely untroubled by what he did, going 20 minutes later to buy milk and then to the gym. He pretended to be like everyone else, they said, but privately was devouring violent jihadi propaganda.
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SMITH: Prosecutors played images of the carnage caused by Tsarnaev's bomb set to one of his radical Islamist chants.
GERRY LEONE: What I think prosecution was doing was to show that not only was this a cold, calculated, intentional, bloodthirsty act, but it was an act born out of terrorism.
SMITH: Former federal prosecutor Gerry Leone says prosecutors are already building their case for the death penalty, given that guilt is all but a foregone conclusion.
LEONE: Prosecution clearly had the upper hand because they had the easier job. All they need to show was guilt, and that was already admitted to.
SMITH: Indeed, the defense went so far as to tell jurors Tsarnaev is ready to be held responsible. But, they said, let's not make his intent worse than it was. He was not a self-radicalized terrorist, they argued, just a kid sucked into trouble by his domineering older brother. Tamerlan, defense attorneys said, was the one who planned the attack, bought the parts and built the bombs. As Suffolk Law School professor Rosanna Cavallaro says, it's part of the defense strategy to avoid the death penalty.
ROSANNA CAVALLARO: They want to portray him as someone who may have been tempted by or seduced by some ideas, but had not thrown himself wholeheartedly into those in the way that his brother had - and just hammering away at that idea that he was, in every respect, second fiddle, distinguishing him from his brother.
SMITH: But prosecutors chided the defense, insisting Dzhokhar was as radicalized as his brother. When Tsarnaev was hiding from police in a dry-docked boat, writing his justification for the attack in language typical of violent Islamist extremism, the prosecutor said there was no one whispering in his ear. Matt Levitt, a terrorism expert called by the government during trial, says the note does show Tsarnaev was a committed jihadist.
MATT LEVITT: He's not saying, oh, my God, I just ran my brother over. Oh, my God, what have I done? Or trying to explain what he's done, as a normal teenager would. He justifies this because of specific jihadi ideas.
SMITH: Jurors will hear lots more on the question of what was in Tsarnaev's head when he did what both sides say he did. But first, they have to get through the formality of deciding, is Tsarnaev guilty? Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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