As Tsarnaev Trial Starts, a Journey into the “Known Unknowns” Begins

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Dzhokar Tsarnaev surrenders. (Handout)

Dzhokar Tsarnaev surrenders. (Handout)

We are about to witness what may be one of the strangest trials ever. For one thing, the central narrative we’ve been provided of the Boston Marathon bombing makes little sense.

Take the defendant’s past. It provides few clues to suggest that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might have been inclined to commit any sort of mayhem, much less on a massive scale. Even his now-dead, more aggressive older brother, Tamerlan, doesn’t exactly seem like the sort to prepare and detonate bombs to harm large numbers of innocent fellow Bostonians.

Furthermore, neither brother is known to have had the expertise to make the explosive devices unleashed at the Marathon, which experts have characterized as sophisticated. They also aren’t known to have the sort of experience or practiced skill with guns or incendiary devices of the sort they’re described as deploying—with ruthless bravado—during a protracted face-off with large numbers of experienced, heavily armed law enforcement officers, some of whom had military training.

Then there is the small matter of evidence. Here, one is struck by the huge gap between what we think we know­—based on an unremitting campaign of leaks from the government—and what actually has been seen or publicly established.

The main piece of evidence—the famed video the government claims to have of the defendant putting down his bomb-laden backpack—has not been seen by the public. Yet many people think they have watched it. Even an appellate judge involved in the Tsarnaev case was under the mistaken impression he had seen such a video.

In fact, as WhoWhatWhy has repeatedly noted, the video may not even exist, because there is no proof of its existence. This week, finally, the conventional media made the same point. (It turns out that former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was being less than honest when he said he had seen that video—not only had he not seen it, but neither, most likely, had those who described it to him.)

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Then, too, much has been made of a “confession” Tsarnaev allegedly wrote on the wall of the boat in which he was ultimately captured. But any honest reading of what we’ve been shown so far certainly can’t be called an outright confession. It doesn’t refer to specific actions, and parts of it are rote recitation of a Muslim expression of faith that’s sometimes invoked when a Muslim is near death. Last rites? Maybe.

But the FBI also admitted that the boat was left out in the open for days, which would be violation of the strict chain-of-custody required to preserve evidence for trial.  So it’s impossible to rule out tampering.

1What else do we think we know? The indictment catalogues purported behavior that looks incriminating, and may well be good enough for an indictment, but that certainly doesn’t prove guilt, even if we can be sure it is all true, which we cannot:

• Dzhokhar read material from the Internet that discusses Jihad.

• Dzhokhar looked at bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

• Tamerlan bought fireworks in New Hampshire (not nearly enough firepower to cause the blasts seen at the finish line, according to fireworks experts).

• Tamerlan and Dzhokhar went to a firing range in New Hampshire (once) and fired handguns while there. (Does this explain their purported proficiency with firearms and explosives? Hardly.)

• About 10 days before the bombing Tamerlan used the Internet to order electronic components that could be adapted for use in making IEDs.

• Dzhokhar opened a pre-paid cell phone account the day before the bombing. While such an act could certainly be portrayed as terrorist tradecraft, it could equally be written off as typical college-kid behavior.

• Dzhokhar had a backpack in his dorm room containing broken-up fireworks.

Clearly enough for an indictment, but does it prove he’s guilty?

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Then there is the small matter of…actually providing the public with meaningful and complete answers. So far, we’ve seen little indication that either the prosecution or the defense has a desire to establish the full story behind the attacks and their aftermath.

For example, evidence of links between the older brother and the FBI—and, through family and other connections, the CIA—has been swept under the rug. This cries out for investigation into whether the government is covering up something. Especially when one considers the government’s well-established practice of recruiting people—often hapless loners—to infiltrate terrorists groups and then foster and participate in terror plots.

Even the Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen laments the fact that we’re unlikely to get much of this critical backstory. Nonetheless Cullen’s article is mis-titled “Closing in on the truth in the tangled Tsarnaev case,” when it’s exactly the tangled parts we’re unlikely to see straightened out.

Of course, the prosecution will not “go there”—that is, honestly follow the facts wherever they may take us. But neither, it seems, will Tsarnaev’s defense. They have seemed hamstrung in their ability to investigate, and appear to have convinced their client that his only hope is to admit his guilt and hope to avoid the death penalty.

He would presumably do this by letting himself be characterized as an unfortunate under the influence of a more malign elder sibling.

Not Wholly Innocent Either

On the other hand, one cannot buy the line of certain critics who contend that the entire government case has been fabricated. After all, we have a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerging from a boat in which he seems to have been hiding. If he didn’t do anything, why would he be hiding and/or on the run? Also, we know that he was at the Marathon, and like his brother, was wearing a backpack (not that that means much, in and of itself.)

We also don’t know if he was a participant in the murder of MIT Officer Sean Collier. The policeman was assassinated by hooded figures on a nearly empty night-time campus a good distance from the brothers’ likely whereabouts. Indeed, many aspects of the Collier shooting don’t make a lot of sense—for example, why would the brothers have killed him to obtain his firearm if they had one already—and then, why shoot him and leave his gun behind? So we don’t necessarily know who killed Collier, or why.

Still, the government claims to have made a ballistics match between the pistol used to kill Collier and the one found in the street after the chaotic Watertown shootout in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev purportedly died. Will the defense have the opportunity to scrutinize that evidence? Will the rest of us?

Also, a friend of Dzhokhar’s who’s facing decades in prison for his own troubles appears to be willing to testify that he gave Dzhokhar the pistol in question, in return for a lesser sentence. Will the defense get to scrutinize the details of that plea deal?

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Those are but a sampling. And there is much, much more that we don’t know. Meanwhile, what we do know is next to nothing.

Which makes it all the more disturbing that the media has allowed the public to believe the opposite: that there is virtually nothing yet to be uncovered.

Let us hope, for the sake of our own national sanity, that we are in for some courtroom surprises. That we will get the clarity and the candor compulsory for a free society and a healthy democracy, rather than a hopped up, ill-informed lynch mob.

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