Witness describes supermax prison as jury weighs life and death for Tsarnaev

BOSTON — In case the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing trial has been wondering, vacancies exist in the most secure cellblock at the remote supermax penitentiary in Colorado, the toughest, bleakest prison in the federal system.

A former prisons official testified Wednesday that only 27 of 34 cells reserved for terrorists and others convicted of the most heinous crimes are occupied.

The implication was that there would be plenty of room for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted last month of the bombings, which killed three and injured 264 others. The same jury will soon decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison with no chance of parole.

As the penalty phase of the trial winds down, defense lawyers on Wednesday sought to impress upon jurors that life at the prison in the Rockies, where Tsarnaev, 21, would almost certainly be sent, would be highly restricted and very lonely — punishment enough, they believe, for his crimes.

The defense has called more than 40 witnesses in the last six days and has offered the jury a smorgasbord of reasons to spare Tsarnaev’s life. They called a specialist in adolescent brain development, for example, who testified that as a 19-year-old, Tsarnaev’s decision-making capacity and judgment were not fully formed.

Lawyers painted Tsarnaev as “a good kid” trapped in a dysfunctional family in the destabilized Russian Caucasus. Among the witnesses was a psychiatrist who testified that Tsarnaev’s father suffered from post-traumatic stress, having been tortured in a detention camp during the Chechen war in the 1990s. Medical records read into evidence said that the father often heard voices screaming his name, had panic attacks and “sees little lizardlike creatures.”

Defense lawyers said in opening statements last week that within a couple of years of moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2002, “both parents were diagnosed with serious mental illness, and their family’s disintegration had begun.” So far, they have presented evidence about only the father’s mental state. Various witnesses have described the mother as loud, vivacious and fashionable and said she shocked everyone when she became an observant Muslim in America and covered herself, head to toe.

Perhaps most significantly, witnesses have described Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, as violent and abusive. Dzhokhar was left in his care after their parents divorced and moved back to the Dagestan region of Russia. The defense maintains that Tamerlan, a self-radicalized jihadist, was the mastermind behind the marathon bombings, and if not for him, the bombings would never have taken place.

Several witnesses have tried to humanize Dzhokhar, with their testimony drawing a sharp contrast between the two brothers. They have cast Tamerlan as a bully who abused his wife and once punched out a stranger on the street, and Dzhokhar as a sweet, aimless boy who did well in school.

One of the more detrimental pieces of evidence produced by the government earlier in the trial showed Dzhokhar shoving a middle finger at a surveillance camera when he was placed in a holding cell. The defense has sought several times to defuse this powerful image, and on Wednesday it produced a deputy U.S. marshal who said that Tsarnaev apologized after he upbraided him for the gesture.

“We asked if he was going to be a problem all day,” the deputy, Kevin Roche, said. “And he said, ‘No, I’m done; I’m sorry.’”

Roche also suggested that Tsarnaev’s gesture was fairly tame compared to the actions of other inmates who have been observed in a holding cell.

Some have attempted suicide, he said, while others fought with other inmates, flooded the toilets and otherwise “acted out.”

The government has used its cross-examinations to return the jury’s focus to the marathon bombings, the reason for the trial in the first place.

On Wednesday, a brother-in-law, who had married one of the Tsarnaev sisters, testified by remote hookup from Kazakhstan that Dzhokhar had been very sweet with his baby nephew, whose birthday was April 15.

Prosecutors, noting that April 15 was also the date of the bombings, in 2013, asked the brother-in-law if this is how Dzhokhar showed his affection for the baby - by bombing the marathon on his first birthday.

The defense is expected to finish its case on Thursday or possibly Monday. At that point, the prosecution plans two days of rebuttal. Then both sides offer closing arguments, probably late next week. The government then gets a final rebuttal before the jury begins deliberations.