Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 5, 2015

Taking The Long View Of Twin Trials

Wednesday dawned cold and gray in New England. The sky was featureless, one unending slate-hued cloud that hung low over city streets bordered by once pristine snowdrifts turned into frozen ice mounds the color of dun. It was a grim morning, the perfect setting for the beginning of sad and somber work. At the Moakley Courthouse in Boston’s seaport district, after an arduous jury selection process, the Marathon Bombing trial was finally scheduled to begin.

It has been nearly two years since a pair of homemade bombs, explosives and shrapnel packed in pressure cookers hidden inside backpacks, brought sudden havoc and destruction to the finish line of Boston’s great annual race. On Wednesday Judge George O’Toole and 18 jurors heard opening arguments and the first witnesses in the federal trial of Dzokhar Tsarnaev. The 21-year old faces 30 counts, 17 of which carry the death penalty. In the days immediately following the bombing investigators identified Tsarnaev and his 26-year old brother Tamerlan as the perpetrators of the Patriots’ Day terror. The older brother was killed in a shootout with police in nearby Watertown during the manhunt.

In their initial statements prosecutors and defense counsel painted two starkly different portraits of Tsarnaev. Assistant U.S. attorney William Weinreb referred to him as a “terrorist” and a “soldier” in a war against his adopted country. The prosecutor then offered graphic and gruesome descriptions of the devastating injuries caused by the twin bombs, which killed three and maimed scores of spectators on Boylston Street. For her part, defense attorney Judy Clarke wasted no time in admitting her client’s culpability. “It was him,” she said, describing Tsarnaev’s deed as “inexcusable.” But, she argued, the then-teenager had been under the powerful sway of his older brother, who in the defense version of events was the mastermind of the atrocity. Clarke told the jury that her client had gone down a path “borne of his brother, created by his brother, and paved by his brother.”

In conceding Tsarnaev’s guilt Clarke hopes to lessen the impact on the jury of the coming weeks of testimony by victims and first responders; and by painting the elder Tsarnaev as the Svengali-like radical dragging his impressionable younger brother along she ultimately hopes to convince the jury during the second penalty phase of the trial to spare her client the death penalty.

But the searing testimony will still be offered, as it was beginning later Wednesday. From relatives of those killed to survivors walking to the stand on prosthetic legs to first responders recalling the frantic race to help the victims, the jurors and the citizens of Boston will all relive the horror of that sunny Monday and the chaos of the days that followed. It is true that the state’s population is politically more liberal than most and Massachusetts does not have a death penalty for state crimes. Roman Catholics also make up a higher than usual percentage of area residents. Despite all that, the odds of the defense team winning an eventual sentence of life without parole seem long indeed.

With the advent of the Marathon Bombing trial the region’s residents now have a pair of grim legal proceedings upon which to focus their daily attention. An hour south of Boston in a state courthouse in Fall River, Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh has been running the first of two murder trials against Aaron Hernandez, formerly a tight end with the New England Patriots. In this case Hernandez is charged with the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd in June 2013, just two months after the Marathon bombing. Since his arrest for Lloyd’s killing Hernandez has also been charged in a double homicide that took place in Boston’s South End in 2012.

There has been no admission of guilt from the lawyers representing the one-time favorite of Patriots fans. To the contrary, they are mounting a vigorous defense, attacking a prosecution case that is admittedly built on circumstantial evidence, since the gun that was used to murder Lloyd in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez’s home. But as the trial has slogged on for weeks, frequently interrupted by the storms of New England’s extraordinary winter, the prosecution team led by Bristol County assistant district attorney William McCauley has presented a growing mountain of evidence linking Hernandez to the crime. Nearly 250 exhibits have been presented, and testimony from forensic experts in everything from ballistics to tire tracks has been heard by the jury. Even if the defense counters in a way that leaves this jury with reasonable doubt, Hernandez still faces a second trial in Boston for the 2012 murders.

Both trials will continue for weeks, and in the case of the Marathon Bombing case, months to come. They are connected by their pull on the public consciousness, and by their almost coincidental tie to sports. One case involves madness wrought at a sporting event; the other, charges against a one-time sports hero. Given the awful and grim reality behind both trials, it is tempting to suggest that they reveal the triviality of our games when weighed against the horror that can upend one’s existence.

Perhaps the trials will grant closure to those directly impacted by these crimes. Certainly that would be one’s most fervent wish. But can the relatives of those killed on Marathon Monday two years ago, or those who will spend the rest of their lives missing a limb, or the family of Odin Lloyd, ever fully move past what happened? The more realistic hope is that they can in time find some measure of acceptance in the horrid vagaries of fate. If so, then they will also find that at their best our games still provide a welcome and worthy distraction from life’s every day cares.

In the months following the Marathon bombing the Red Sox rolled to an improbable championship. During the ensuing victory parade through the city, the procession was stopped so that the Commissioner’s Trophy could be set on the finish line of Boston’s great race. Last April the runners returned to New England, and in six weeks’ time they will be back by the tens of thousands, even as the Tsarnaev trial continues. While Aaron Hernandez sat in jail his former teammates won a Super Bowl.  Trivial?  Not exactly.  New Englanders have celebrated all of that, while never forgetting what happened in the spring and summer of 2013.

By midday Wednesday the clouds had lifted. The sun was shining and for the first time in a month the thermometer crept above 40 degrees. A grim late winter’s day had given way to the first tempting promise of a spring that will yet come. Attention will be paid to the two courthouses; but even, or more precisely especially, in the worst of times, our games, and our lives, still go on.


  1. It just amazes me how you continually manage to outdo yourself. Fine work, as always.

    • Thanks for your very generous words Bill. Less than a month to go until Opening Day!


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