||[Jun. 7th, 2015|10:09 pm]
Kind of belated on my part, but I know some of my friends here are interested in current events, and was wondering what folks thought about the recently concluded Tsarnaev trial. I'm happy enough to see him sentenced to death, although I strongly suspect that he'll die of old age, but notwithstanding my animus against the man, I can't help but be somewhat amazed, and even scandalized by the defense that he got in the trial.
First off, it's unusual for a defense team to concede up front that their guy did it, but really they didn't have much of a choice there. Their strategy was obviously focussed on persuading the jury to avoid the death penalty because of his age. I can think of prominent historic examples that went down that exact same road, most notably the trial of Myron Semunchick for the 1945 murder of Mae Barrett (he got life, and was eventually parolled), as well as that of Harold Beach, who got the chair for his 1948 murder of Sheila Ann Tuley. Both those murders, while cruel in the extreme, were crimes of passion committed on the spur of the moment by sexually frustrated teenagers. Calmly planning to set off a bomb in a crowd of strangers to express your political convictions is something altogether different. Tsarnaev's lawyers had a Herculean task before them. With that in mind, it seems incredible that they would set out to dig the hole deeper, but that's exactly what happened.
They kicked the festivities off by claiming that they wanted him to get life in prison because that would be a more severe punishment than death. That's blatantly insulting to the jury's intelligence. Whether any of them took offense or not is impossible to say, but certainly, they didn't win anyone over to their side that way.
When the prosecution entered into evidence the piece of the boat on which Tsarnaev had written his confession in blood, the defense embarked on this impassioned argument to have the jury see the entire bullet-riddled boat, and not just the panel. They succeeded in that, although what they thought they'd gain from that is a mystery. I can't see any way that could have helped or hurt them. Perhaps they were trying to sow confusion. They certainly confused me.
I wonder, then, if the prosecution had that in mind when they introduced the brief clip of Tsarnaev giving the finger to the security camera in his jail cell. Defense immediately began lobbying for the jury to see the several preceeding minutes. They got their wish. The jury got to see Tsarnaev, completely calm and collected, using the reflective cover of the security camera to arrange his hair and clothes. The absolute lack of emotion was chilling. Without having seen the extra footage, one might interpret the moment where he snarls and gives the finger to the camera as the bravado of a frightened young man. In context, the act looks like the mask dropping off a diabolically hateful man who just can't contain himself any longer. It was IMHO, catastrophically dumb of the defense team to even allow that to be shown, much less to insist that it be shown. I think that, right there, is where they put him on death row.
They weren't done, though. Not by a long shot. They got his aunt to take the stand, and testify about what a nice child he'd been, and how much fun they used to have together. He started crying during this, after having sat impassively during hours of testimony about the people he'd hurt and killed, and how their lives were ruined. They showed the jury that he could feel pity for himself, if not for anyone else. Perhaps that one wasn't their fault. I'd really like to think that they did a walkthrough of his aunt's testimony before the trial, and that he didn't react that way then. Judging by the rest of their performance, though, I'm not sure they even understood that there was a problem.
Having done all that, they got Sr. Mary Prejean, a nun who's devoted her life to campaigning against the death penalty, to testify as to how she thought he could be reformed, and ought not to be executed. It's hard to see what they hoped to gain from that. Sr. Prejean is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances,and believes that everyone can be reformed. If Hitler were on trial, she'd make the very same argument. Her testimony says nothing, therefore about Tsarnaev himself - just about her general beliefs.
Her testimony was worse than useless, though, because she spent a fair amount of time testifying about the strings that she had to pull to get access to Tsarnaev in jail. In the process, whether they understood it or not, she pretty well destroyed the defense's argument that Tsarnaev would be securely held in prison, unable to communicate with confederates on the outside.
I can't really recall a high-profile case that was so poorly defended. I almost wonder if they decided that they were toast no matter what they did, and settled for trying to lay a groundwork for another team of attorneys to argue in a few years time, when people have calmed down a bit, that Tsarnaev had an incompetent defense, and should be retried.
I'd be interested to hear other people's thought on this.