BOSTON, MA — Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told a judge Thursday he was satisfied with his defense lawyers at what is expected to be the final public hearing before his death penalty trial begins on January 5.
Wearing gray slacks a white button-down shirt under a black sweater, Tsarnaev said, “Yes, sir,” to a series of questions from the judge, including whether he was pleased with his defense and had been kept informed about his case.
It was the first time Tsarnaev — suspected with his older brother Tamerlan of planting two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others near the Boston Marathon finish line in April 2013 — appeared in a Boston federal court since he pleaded not guilty last year.
One of the more colorful developments happened as the 25-minute hearing ended. Elena Teyer — mother-in-law of Ibragim Todashev, a Tamerlan Tsarnaev associate whom an FBI agent shot and killed in Florida last year during what authorities say was a separate murder investigation — was in attendance and shouted in support of Dzhokhar as he was led away in handcuffs.
“I said in court, ‘Dzhokhar, you have a lot of supporters. We pray for you. … We know you’re innocent,’ ” Teyer told reporters afterward. Todashev, like the Tsarnaev family, was from Chechnya — though the Tsarnaev brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan.
Also at Thursday’s hearing, a potential defense expert witness who has been interviewing Tsarnaev’s relatives was a center of contention between the prosecution and the defense.
The prosecution says it doesn’t want the witness to offer an opinion on whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was under his older brother’s control. Dzhokhar was 19 at the time of the bombings; Tamerlan, who was killed in a police encounter days after the incident, was 26.
The defense, in a status hearing in April, called the Tsarnaev family dynamic key to their case.
The judge did not immediately rule on the witness.
Possibly another trial delay?
Tsarnaev attorney David Bruck said his team could file yet another motion to have the trial delayed. In September, defense attorneys succeeded in moving the trial from November 3 to January 5. But they wanted it delayed much longer — until September 1, 2015 — citing a large volume of information in the case.
But unless Bruck files another motion and a judge grants it, Tsarnaev is set to stand trial in less than three weeks.
Authorities say Tsarnaev and his older brother planted two pressure-cooker explosives, hidden in backpacks, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.
As spectators watched runners finish the race in the afternoon, the bombs exploded 12 seconds apart, killing 8-year-old Martin Richard, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student from China, and injuring more than 260 others.
Three days later, after the FBI released surveillance photos of the suspects, the Tsarnaevs shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, authorities say. Early the next day, authorities say, the brothers hijacked a car in Cambridge, and then threw explosives out the car windows and exchanged gunfire with police who pursued them.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died of wounds he suffered in the encounter, but Dzhokhar got away, leading to a massive manhunt. He was found that night in a motorboat dry-docked in the backyard of a Watertown, Massachusetts, home, covered in blood from bullet wounds sustained in that morning’s shootout.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces more than 30 federal charges, including using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death.
Federal prosecutors announced earlier this year that they will seek the death penalty against him, arguing he acted in “an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner” and lacks remorse.
Prosecutors have said they expect to call between 80 and 100 witnesses in a three- to four-month trial.
In September, a federal judge denied Tsarnaev’s bid to move his upcoming trial out of Massachusetts. His lawyers had argued that pretrial publicity and public sentiment jeopardized his opportunity for a fair trial.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole rejected the argument that 12 impartial jurors couldn’t be found in the area, saying Massachusetts’ eastern federal district had about 5 million people.
As for Todashev, authorities said an FBI agent fatally shot the 27-year-old at his Florida apartment in May 2013. This happened as FBI agents and Massachusetts state troopers questioned him about a 2011 Boston-area triple murder that they thought could have been tied to Todashev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
A report by Florida’s 9th Circuit state attorney, Jeffrey Ashton, concluded this year that Todashev’s killing was justified — a finding that concurred with a reviews by the FBI and the Florida state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties.
The report cites FBI documents that said Todaschev was writing a confession to the triple murder when when he attacked, flipping the table he was writing on and striking an FBI agent in the head. Todaschev ran to the kitchen and was heard frantically grabbing items before reappearing in the doorway wielding a long metal handle of a mop or broom.
The report said Todashev took an attack stance with the pole and lunged violently at the agent, who shot him, with fatal wounds to his head and his heart, according to the documents.
Todashev’s family has disputed that he posed any threat to the law enforcement officers and agents in his apartment.
U.S. law enforcement officials said Todashev made statements implicating himself and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the 2011 killings.
By Jason Hanna, Ann Roche and Deborah Feyerick
Ann Roche and Deborah Feyerick reported from Boston; Jason Hanna reported and wrote in Atlanta. Greg Botelho and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.