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First Trial Begins For A Friend Of Marathon Bombing Suspect


The first trial connected to the Boston Marathon bombing is underway. The defendant is not the surviving suspected bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It's Tsarnaev's friend - a 20-year-old from Kazakhstan who is accused of obstruction of justice. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As prosecutors tell it, Azamat Tazhayakov and his roommates saw photos of the alleged bombers and immediately recognized them. So prosecutors say they went to Tsarnaev's dorm room and removed lots of potentially incriminating evidence - from a backpack with firecrackers missing their explosive powder, to a laptop and a bag of marijuana.

Then, prosecutors alleged, Tazhayakov agreed with a plan to throw the back pack away because he didn't want his friend to get in trouble. But defense attorneys say Tazhayakov went to Tsarnaev's room to find his friend, not to engage in a cover-up. Outside court, attorney Arkady Bukh, interpreted for Tazhayakov's father.

ARKADY BOOK: (Translating for Tazhayakov's father) Everybody was going over there to check what's going on. Nobody could believe that that was Dzhokhar.

SMITH: Once it became clear the next morning that Tsarnaev was the suspect, Book says Tazhayakov told authorities everything he knew. He says there was lots of other incriminating evidence they did not take, like the white hat that Tsarnaev was wearing in all the surveillance images. And they never threw out his laptop.

As for dumping the back pack, Tazhayakov blames that on his roommate, who's facing separate trial in September. It's a tactic Suffolk University Law Professor, Chris Dearborn, says may work well.

CHRIS DEIRBORN: You know, all is fair in love, war and a court of law. Right? And in fact, oftentimes that is the best single defense - to point the finger at one another - whether it's about sort of creating confusion or doubt or whether it's the truth or - either way.

SMITH: Tazhayakov smiled several times in court, like when a friend testified he was known as a, quote, "mama's boy." Relatives of bombing victims were also in court as other witnesses described the bomb site and the injured. Defense attorneys implored jurors not to be, quote, "shocked and awed" by emotion about the marathon attack. This is not about the bombings, they said.

But analyst, Don Stern, a former U.S. attorney, says the investigation Tazhayakov is accused of obstructing is relevant.

DON STERN: Remember, law enforcement did not know, at that point, necessarily, whether there were, you know, other bombs that were planted, whether there were other people who were at risk. You know, that seems to me serious stuff.

SMITH: Stern says the case will hinge on Tazhayakov's intent and his own statements to investigators. The defense has tried to keep that evidence out, since Tazhayakov was not read his Miranda rights and didn't understand that he didn't have to answer questions.

He had been taken from his home, stripped and handcuffed, before he was interrogated for 12 hours. The judge is allowing the statements, but he says he may change his mind - which Deirborn says would mean a mistrial.

DEIRBORN: What the judge has done in this case is very peculiar. And I think could come back to bite him in the you-know-what.

SMITH: Meantime, defense attorneys are trying to cast doubt on what the FBI says Tazhayakov said during the investigation, noting it wasn't recorded and telling jurors to be suspect of the FBI's, quote, "one-sided, subjective version of what was said." Harvard law professor, Ron Sullivan, says that may well resonate with a Boston jury.

RON SULLIVAN: In the wake of Whitey Bulger and the allegations in respect to the FBI, Boston jurors might have a healthier suspicion about law enforcement.

SMITH: The trial of Tazhayakov may offer a glimpse of upcoming cases against three other friends and Tsarnaev himself. Prosecutors say Tsarnaev told his friends a month before the marathon that he knew how to make a bomb and that it was good to be a martyr because you would, quote, "die with a smile on your face and go straight to heaven." Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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