BOSTON — He looked like little more than an exhausted college student not used to waking up before noon. His black, curly hair was shaggier than before, and he wore a short, scraggly new beard, slightly red in hue.
He wore baggy gray khakis and a black zip-up sweater, with a white button-down shirt that peeked out from underneath — an outfit that seemed to overwhelm his slight frame. He rubbed his beard and the left side of his face, and his left eye appeared to be a little droopy.
There was little in his appearance that seemed out of the ordinary. Yet with every slight move he made, people behind him sat up straight in their seats and stared at him — some tilting their heads to get a better look. Even when the action shifted to the other side of the room, they kept their eyes locked on him.
The scene that unfolded in a federal courtroom in Boston was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s first public appearance in 17 months. The surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings said only five words in the final hearing before his trial begins in January, on charges that he, along with his older brother, set off two deadly bombs near the marathon finish line in April 2013.
Had he been kept apprised of the proceedings in the case? “Yes,” the 21-year-old politely told the judge, quietly and with a slight accent. Had he been in regular communication with his lawyers? “Yes, sir,” he said, a little louder. Was he satisfied with his legal representation? “Very much,” he replied, with a slight nod. And then he lowered back into this seat, where he sat for another 22 minutes, rubbing his eyes, stretching his legs and shifting around in his chair.
Tsarnaev occasionally offered brief hints of a smile to his team of defense attorneys, but not once did he look at the spectators behind him, perhaps aware of the microscope he was under.
The brief exchange with Tsarnaev made for a strangely surreal moment in an otherwise routine hearing in the marathon bombing case. Last July, Tsarnaev had pleaded not guilty to the bombings, which killed three people and injured several hundred. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
In court on Thursday, William Fick, one of Tsarnaev’s attorneys, told the judge the defense would soon be filing for a continuance —a delay of the Jan. 5 trial date that he said was necessary because of a slew of government disclosures in the case in recent days. The filings were all listed in court records, but they remain under seal from the public because of a gag order in the case. Neither side hinted at what the filings were.
At the same time, there was wrangling between prosecutors and Tsarnaev’s attorneys over a proposed defense witness, a mental health expert who is expected to testify about Tsarnaev and his relationship with his family as well as her findings about the family’s history. His defense team has hinted that they will portray Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspect’s older brother, who was killed during an altercation with police four days after the attacks, as the plot’s mastermind and cast their own client as someone from an intensely troubled family who was unduly influenced by his sibling. But prosecutors said Thursday they wanted to know more about whom the expert has talked to, and they questioned whether her testimony should be barred as hearsay.
As the attorneys went back and forth, Tsarnaev quietly sat at the defense table, rubbing his face and his eyes. There was a notepad in front of him, and it appeared at one point that he was writing a note to one of his attorneys, Miriam Conrad, a federal public defender in Boston. He took occasional sips of water and looked tired.
Tsarnaev had arrived at the federal courthouse in Boston around 6:15 a.m., transported from a medical prison outside the city in a motorcade of black SUVs with heavily tinted windows and flashing police lights. He was kept in a basement holding cell until he was escorted to a third-floor courtroom upstairs about three minutes before the 10 a.m. hearing.
People lined up before sunrise hoping to get a seat in the courtroom, including several people, young and old, male and female, who said they didn’t believe the charges against Tsarnaev. One was a retiree from Ottawa, Canada, who had no connection to Boston, the marathon or Tsarnaev. The woman, who declined to give her name, said she had followed the case from the very beginning and thought he had been framed. “Call it women’s intuition,” she said. “I know he’s not guilty.”
Outside the courthouse, members of the so-called Free Jahar movement, which uses the defendant’s nickname, waved signs proclaiming Tsarnaev’s innocence. Shortly before the hearing began, Marc Fucarile, who lost the lower part of his right leg when the second bomb went off, paused and removed his prosthetic leg and waved it at a woman holding a sign that said, “Got proof?” “That’s proof,” he told her.
Upstairs, the hearing lasted 26 minutes and unfolded without drama, save for the final seconds before Tsarnaev left the room. Just after he was handcuffed and U.S. marshals began to escort him away, a woman stood up and yelled something in Russian and then in English. “Don’t kill an innocent boy!” she screamed, as she was quickly ushered out of the room.
Meanwhile out in the hallways, people debated Tsarnaev’s appearance, including several supporters who said his sedate demeanor suggested that he had been “drugged.”
Shortly before noon, Tsarnaev’s motorcade left the building. A half-hour later, a television news helicopter hovering overhead captured him emerging from the vehicle in handcuffs, escorted back into jail wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.