BOSTON — Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was seen publicly in court Thursday for the first time since he was arraigned on 30 federal charges in July 2013.
Tsarnaev, 21, was in court for the final hearing before his trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 5. Prosecutors and defense attorneys discussed the ground rules for the trial, which is expected to last several months.
The judge made no rulings, saying he would rule in writing on pending motions, including the defense’s latest push to move the trial.
Security was tight and the courtroom was packed as people strained to be the first to get a look at Tsarnaev. Fourteen victims of the attacks sat together on one side of the galley. Members of the media and general public occupied 60 seats on benches.
At one point, Tsarnaev received a shout of encouragement from the mother-in-law of a man who was shot and killed while being questioned by law enforcement after the bombings. The mother-in-law of Ibragim Todashev shouted at Tsarnaev in Russian. Elena Teyer says she told him: « We prayed for you. Be strong, my son. We know you are innocent. »
Later, in English, she yelled at law enforcement officers escorting her out of the room: « Stop killing innocent people. Stop killing innocent boys. »
Tsarnaev never flinched or acknowledged the shouts.
He did give a small, seemingly nervous, smile to his lawyers upon entering the courtroom. He had a scruffy beard and a mopped head of wavy, uncombed hair. He wore a black sweater and open-necked collared shirt.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. asked him four questions, inquiring whether he had elected to be absent in prior status conferences and whether his lawyers had kept him apprised of the proceedings.
« Yes sir, » Tsarnaev said.
O’Toole also asked if he’s been satisfied with his legal representation.
« Very much, » Tsarnaev said. When O’Toole asked if he would like a private meeting with him to discuss his representation, Tsarnaev declined.
Tsarnaev is charged in a 30-count indictment that alleges he conspired with his late older brother, Tamerlan, to build and detonate two pressure-cooker bombs that left three dead and more than 260 injured near the crowded finish line of last year’s Boston Marathon. He’s also charged in the murder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology security officer who died during the manhunt. Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted.
The beefed up police presence included a line of police vehicles at front of the courthouse entrance. In back, a Boston Police boat with blue lights flashing kept watch in Boston Harbor. Boston Police Special Operations members patrolled on foot with dogs.
Thursday’s hearing is the last chance to ask the judge for new ground rules for the trial. Tsarnaev’s lawyers recently filed a new motion seeking, for the second time, to have the trial moved out of Boston, where they fear their client will not be treated fairly.
O’Toole rejected Tsarnaev’s first request in September to move the trial, ruling that Tsarnaev’s lawyers had failed to show that extensive pretrial media coverage of the bombings had prejudiced the jury pool to the point that an impartial jury could not be chosen in Boston.
Tsarnaev’s lawyers previously said the trial should be moved to Washington, D.C.
O’Toole also rejected a defense request that prosecutors turn over evidence about his older brother’s possible participation in a 2011 triple killing in suburban Waltham, Mass.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys were also expected to discuss the jury selection process with the judge. Both sides have submitted questions they want the judge to ask potential jurors, who will be selected from a pool of at least 1,200 people. Seating a jury alone could take several weeks to a month.
When last seen, Tsarnaev still had visible injuries from a shootout with police several days after the April 15, 2013, bombings. His left arm was in a cast and his face was swollen. The injuries followed a bloody standoff with police that led to his capture and the death of his brother Tamerlan.
Three friends of Tsarnaev were convicted this year of hampering the investigation by removing evidence from his dorm room or lying to the FBI.
Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for removing a backpack containing fireworks and other potential evidence while authorities were still looking for the suspected bombers. Another friend, Robel Phillipos, was convicted of lying to federal agents about being in the room. All three are awaiting sentencing.
Contributing: Marisol Bello in McLean, Va., and the Associated Press