It’s Wednesday morning and the sky is overcast. I grab an umbrella in anticipation of rain, and head from my Allston apartment towards Boston’s discomforting downtown. One bus and two trains later, I show up at Boston’s federal courthouse at 1pm, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arraignment is scheduled to start at 3:30pm.
Tsarnaev is suspected to have been responsible for the April 15th Boston Marathon bombings, along with his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shoot-out with the police in April. This is Tsarnaev‘s first public appearance since April 19, when police captured him from the back of a boat in Watertown. Today he will hear all of the federal charges being leveled against him.
When I arrive at the courthouse, I have to check my phone at the front desk, and then slide my black backpack through a metal detector as if going through airport security. “Are you press?” a security guard asks. I pause and wonder about whether a website called fvckthemedia.com counts. I nod and walk past him.
I ride the elevator to floor five, and locate Courtroom 10. The hallway is enormous. A scenic view of the Boston Harbor stretches across the floor-to-ceiling windows. Natural light pours through. A luxury cruise ship floats by marked by the words “Spirit of Boston”.
I count 80 people waiting outside of the courtroom. Half are the media; half are family, victims, and general public. The public line includes a tall Caucasian man in a yellow marathon runner’s shirt. One woman props up a wooden slab and a box of oily crayons, painting a scene of several gray-haired security guards in blue suit jackets. I stare at the painting, then up at the guards, and approach one of them.
“Can I get your thoughts on my situation?” I ask him. He stares at me blankly, like the emoji with no mouth. “I am part of the media, but I have no credentials, should I be in the media line?” He says I have no chance of getting into the main courtroom without credentials, that I should proceed to courtroom 17 and get a good spot in the “overflow” room, where I can watch a live video of the arraignment.
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I sit in the front row of courtroom 17, a sterile white room with hard wood benches, waiting for about two hours. There is barely anyone else in there. It is pretty boring. I write a poem, and draw a cartoon, and make some lists in my planner.
Eventually a tan middle-aged man sits next to me in the front row. He is wearing running sneakers and a salmon-and-white-striped t-shirt. He tells me he’s on vacation. He’s been at the courthouse all day. His first stop was the Whitey Bulger trial. “It was boring today … more interesting yesterday,” he reports. I wonder how many people in this room stuck around for the double spectacle today. Cheaper than going to the movies, I guess.
“These seats are going to be pretty uncomfortable after a couple of hours,” he tells me. “The jury room downstairs is better, more comfortable, there are individual seats.”
The room starts to fill out around 2:45.
The man on vacation points out the cameras installed inside books along the wall.
“It’s nice out there, beautiful cool breeze along the waterfront,” I overhear someone say.
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At about 3:27, a bald guy wearing a short-sleeve button-down walks in and hits play on a laptop.
The two large screens first turn green, and then turn to a view of the courtroom where Tsarnaev will be arraigned.
When the courtroom appears on the TVs, the humming chatter of the overflow room quickly turns to the faintest of whispers, so quiet you can hear pens click and papers shuffle. Fists are clenched, nails are bitten. Everyone’s eyes are intently on the muted screenshot of the courtroom, a room full of red nervous faces, the victims of the bombings as well as family, former schoolmates, and supporters of Tsarnaev.
“Absolutely no video or audio recording,” is the first audible sound transmitted from the courtroom through these TV screens.
Two women appear on the screen, Tsarnaev’s lawyers, one of whom is Judy Clarke, a defense attorney famous for regularly working with bombers, murderers, and other clients facing the death penalty.
Tsarnaev walks into the room, wearing a neon orange jumpsuit, unbuttoned at the top. His hair is still shaggy; he has a soft cast on his left arm. He looks kinda stoned, but my guess is, he’s just nervous. Tsarnaev sits between his two attorneys, guided by a security guard who removes his handcuffs.
“There are 30 victims and family members here today,” says the judge, US Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler. “We are here today for the purposes of arraignment.”
Before the charges are read, Judy Clarke asks if she can recite the pleas on behalf of Tsarnaev. “I would ask him to answer,” Bowler says, meaning that Tsarnaev must respond himself.
Tsarnaev leans forward, scratches his chin, sits back. He looks sleepy but nervous; bored but fidgety. He puts a thumb to his face, leans forward, stares right, leans back. He stands, rubs his mouth. His lawyer touches his back.
Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb starts to read through a list of 30 charges being leveled against Tsarnaev, which includes charges for the use of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. “The maximum penalty is up to life in prison or the death penalty,” he says.
Tsarnaev leans forward and says “Not Guilty” in a thick Russian accent into a microphone. It is strange and startling to hear this person’s voice for the first time, after months of seeing images of his face all over the Internet.
Weinreb continues reading through groups of charges: possession and use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence resulting in death; carjacking resulting in serious bodily injury; bombing of a place of public use resulting in death.
“Not Guilty,” Tsarnaev says again. More charges are read.
“Not Guilty,” he says and rubs his mouth.
“Not Guilty,” clenching his hands together.
“Not Guilty.” He says it seven times.
The judge explains that the United States will bring 80 to 100 witnesses to the trial. It will take 3 to 4 months, starting on September 23 at 10 am.
Before leaving, the judge makes one last remark about transparency in regards to the forthcoming trial: “This court frowns upon the sealing of judicial documents [from the public] unless absolutely necessary.”
The courtroom empties. By the time I remove my intent gaze from the TV screen and look to my right, the overflow room is half empty. I stay seated, scribble a few things down, and exit.
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At the elevators, the people who occupied the main courtroom and the overflow rooms converge. A woman with a white polka-dotted scarf around her head rushes into an elevator with another woman covered by a black scarf, holding a baby. Tsarnaev’s sisters, I later learn.
On the next elevator over, I notice a girl wearing a “Jahar is Innocent” t-shirt. (Jahar is Tsarnaev’s nickname.)
I walk outside the courtroom and into the media circus. Dozens of cameras from major TV stations, reporters with microphones pouncing on anyone who exits the courthouse. Still no rain.
I start talking to some teenagers, who apparently are friends with the girl in the “Jahar is Innocent” t-shirt. She had to take off, because the media was harassing her. I speak with these teenage girls, Daniella and Kiera, 17 and 14 respectively, one with braces.
“I feel like I can't trust the media anymore,” says Daniella. “Because there are so many different stories,” says Kiera. “It's like high school,” adds Daniella. “Rumors just get spread around.” These girls are Jahar supporters; if you search on Twitter for the #FreeJahar or #JusticeForJahar tags, you will find dozens and dozens of other teenagers like them, who often have Tsarnaev’s face as their Twitter icon, and quotes from his Twitter in their bios. There is an unsettling sincerity in the eyes of these teenagers.
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Later, I speak with a 20-year-old girl named Brittany Gillis, who went to UMass Dartmouth at the same time as Tsarnaev. She was inside the courtroom today. “It was very nerve wracking,” she tells me. “His family was crying as soon as he walked in. And the victims’ families were very upset. You could just tell they were upset just by seeing him. His family was crying and he kept looking back at his family. It seemed like he was very nervous.”
Gillis has never met Tsarnaev, but they have mutual friends. “My friends knew him and they said he was a nice kid,” she says. “He used to walk my friend home from the library late at night just make sure she got back safe . . . I do think he’s guilty but I think it was because of the influence of his brother. I think that it shouldn’t be death penalty but some type of imprisonment.”
Out of the 30 charges Tsarnaev faces, 17 of them are punishable by the death penalty. The death penalty has not been used in Massachusetts in 66 years, and in fact, it has been banned in Massachusetts for state cases since 1984. But with this case, Tsarnaev is being charged under federal law, so the death penalty is a possibility.
The Boston Marathon bombings left three dead -- Martin Richard, 8, Krystle Marie Campbell, 29, and Lingzi Lu, 23 – plus 264 injured. Several victims lost their legs.
I leave the courthouse continuing to sympathize with the family members and victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, and feeling empathy for any human experiencing confusion and frustration as a result of this complicated and difficult tragedy. Tired, I ride in a pedicab to Dewey Square, and take the train back to Allston. The sky is still grey.