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MIT student, police officers testify about Sean Collier's death

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier entered its second week with emotional testimonies and never-before released evidence about Collier’s death.

MIT and Cambridge police officers and a PhD student witness testified Wednesday about the April 18, 2013 shooting of Collier. The prosecution also presented distant footage of the murder, which showed two figures approaching Collier’s squad car parked between the Stata Center and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and then fleeing through North Court.

Although Collier had been shot twice in the side of the head, once between the eyes, and three times in his right hand, “there was a slight pulse still beating from his carotid,” said MIT Police sergeant Clarence Henniger, who reached him first. Despite medical assistance, Collier was pronounced dead upon arrival at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Collier’s death

Wednesday’s testimonies on Collier’s death began with MIT Police chief John DiFava.

At around 9:30 p.m. on April 18, 2013, DiFava saw Collier while leaving campus. “I chatted with him for a few minutes, I told him to be safe, and I left.” That was the last time DiFava saw Collier alive. DiFava stayed in the courtroom after his testimony and was seen comforting others, while also periodically rubbing his eyes.

In video footage captured that night by a security camera on the roof of the Green Building, Collier drives through North Court along the road bordering Stata, bringing his cruiser to a stop in front of the Koch Institute’s Main Street entrance shortly after 10 p.m.

Two figures can be seen walking at 10:23 p.m. from the Ames street corner along the path in front of the Koch Institute to Collier’s cruiser at other side. The pair runs up to the cruiser, arriving at 10:24 p.m. A figure leans into the driver’s seat for a while, at which point a bicyclist comes up the Stata path and passes them.

It was at this time that the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly shot Collier. Then at 10:25 p.m., the two figures emerge and run away.

At 10:30 p.m., police officers and vehicles begin gathering around the cruiser.

Nate Harman, the bicyclist who passed the cruiser and a PhD candidate at MIT, recalled seeing someone by the vehicle. “I just assumed he was an MIT student: young, normal height, thin; he was wearing a dark sweatshirt and a hat,” said Harman.

“I remember thinking he had a big nose, but nothing beyond that really,” he recalled. “I just laughed, thought I just startled him, just kept going,” not realizing anything was wrong. Although the video shows two figures, Harman testified that he “only saw one person.”

When lead prosecutor William Weinreb asked Harman whether the person he’d seen in the video was in the courtroom and what the person was wearing, Harman faced Tsarnaev and responded, “Yes, he’s right there. He has a blue shirt on.” Tsarnaev, who had been reclining in his chair until that point, leaned forward, presumably to make his apparel clearer.

Jurors also heard the recording of a 911 call from someone inside the Koch Institute who reported what seemed to be gunshots. The caller said, “it sounds like someone’s hitting a trash can really loud,” and that a police officer was in the vicinity.

MIT Officer David Sacco, who took the call, attempted to dispatch Collier, who was in charge of the area. After a few calls and texts with no response, enough time passed that Sacco became uncomfortable.

Sergeant Henniger drove past Collier’s cruiser at around 10:20 p.m. and did not notice anything unusual. When he reached the station a few minutes later and heard that Collier had been unresponsive, he returned. The scene was the same — “the only exception was that the driver’s side door was open.”

He observed blood “on [Collier’s] weapon” and on his holster. Both he and DiFava demonstrated the holster’s three-step security feature. The fact that only one had been undone meant that someone had tried to take the weapon, argued the prosecution.

Henniger parked and walked over, “and that’s when I discovered Officer Collier had been shot,” he said. Because he still had a pulse, Henniger radioed for help. “Officer down! Officer down!” and later, “get on it!” are heard in recordings of Henniger’s calls.

Another officer who had already been dispatched reached the scene “within 45 seconds” of Henniger, and the two began to perform CPR. Soon, Cambridge Police responders including witness Brendan O’Hearn arrived and provided aid until Collier was taken away in an ambulance.

“His face and his neck were covered in blood; he had some type of a wound to his head; there was blood coming from his mouth,” said O’Hearn.

During all of these testimonies, Collier’s dad sat listening in the courtroom.

Victims describe smell of burning tissue

Earlier in the week, jurors were presented with testimonies that included graphic descriptions of the explosions at the marathon by victims and first responders.

Jessica Kensky, a nurse at the time of the bombing, testified Monday about the chaotic aftermath of the first blast. She recalled helping her husband, who had just had part of his leg blown off, when a man came up and told her, “Ma’am, you’re on fire.” Kensky ended up losing both legs due to her own injuries.

Danling Zhou, a fellow Chinese Boston University student and friend of Lingzi Lu who died in the bombings, described the carnage caused by the second explosion where the pair stood in front of The Forum restaurant on Boylston Street. After she awoke on the sidewalk, she said she knew that Lu was alive because she was yelling.

James Bath, a general practitioner who was walking down Newbury Street when he heard what sounded like a cannon, described noticing an “unmistakable smell of burning tissue and blood.”

“People had dropped like puzzle pieces” on the sidewalk, he said. He described tending to Lu, who he said had lost too much blood from her injuries to be saved.

Surveillance video and tweets

The prosecution presented a compilation of security camera video tracing the Tsarnaev brothers as they strode up Boylston street toward the finish line in the minutes leading up to the blast. Dzhokar stopped in front of The Forum, where he would eventually put down his backpack, while Tamerlan continued on.

Dzhokar appears to talk on his cell phone in the security footage of the restaurant’s patio. He walks in the direction away from the finish line while most people in the frame look left toward the first explosion. Seconds later, a bright flash of white consumes the frame.

A later video from a different camera shows him running with other spectators down Boylston away from the finish line.

The defense remained mostly quiet throughout the week, rarely cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses. But in one of the notable exceptions, lead defender Miriam Conrad grilled the FBI agent who compiled the video sequence about the timestamps on the footage, apparently trying to question whether the call depicted in the video corresponded to one listed in phone records from Dzhokar to Tamerlan, as the agent suggested, or one minutes later from Tamerlan to Dzhokar.

The prosecution also presented security footage depicting Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s activities after the bombings, showing him buying milk at a Whole Foods shortly after the bombings and working out the next day at a gym at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where he was a student.

The jury also saw dozens of posts by two of Tsarnaev’s Twitter accounts. One, @j_tsar, contained Tweets ranging from normal college social media fare to the more ominous. “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause,” he posted about a month before the bombing.

The posts by his other account, @Al_FirdausiA, included “I shall die young” in Russian and an invitation to watch videos by militant Anwar Al-Awlaki amid general comments about Islam.

Tsarnaev’s manifesto

On Tuesday, jurors got a glimpse of Tsarnaev’s so-called “manifesto” that he scribbled on the boat in a Watertown backyard where he hid before being captured. The prosecution has presented his writings as a confession for the crimes.

“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” the writings included. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” The words were written in pencil and interspersed by blood stains and holes from gunshots that came from the shootout leading up to Tsarnaev’s arrest.

The question now remains whether or not jurors will be able to see the entire boat firsthand. The prosecution wants to bring in only the panels with writings on them to the courthouse, while the defense has asked to transport the entire boat to show the writings “in context.”

The court session ended early on Tuesday as Judge O’Toole took a visit to the boat to decide for himself. He has yet to rule on the request.

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