SHAFAQNA – A prosecutor told a jury Monday that a friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lied repeatedly to the FBI during the investigation into the deadly attack, while the friend’s lawyer said he was a frightened 19-year-old whose memory was clouded by heavy marijuana use.
The starkly different descriptions of Robel Phillipos were presented during opening statements at his federal trial. Phillipos, 21, of Cambridge, is charged with lying to the FBI about being in suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm when two other friends removed Tsarnaev’s backpack and other potential evidence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin told the jury that Phillipos “created a fiction” about his movements the night of April 18, 2013, three days after the bombing and hours after the FBI released photos of Tsarnaev and his brother as suspects. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when two bombs exploded near the marathon finish line.
Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges and is awaiting a trial scheduled to begin in January. He could face the death penalty if convicted. His brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with police several days after the bombing.
Capin said Phillipos and two friends entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth after the photos were released. He said Phillipos saw the men remove the backpack and later said, “Do what you have to do” when one of them said he thought he should get rid of it.
Capin said Phillipos told a string of lies to the FBI during several interviews until he finally confessed to being in Tsarnaev’s dorm room and seeing the men remove the backpack, which contained fireworks that had been emptied of their explosive powder.
“He understood the significance of seeing those in Tsarnaev’s dorm room,” Capin said.
Phillipos’ lawyer, Derege Demissie, held a gift-wrapped box in front of the jury and said prosecutors were “attempting to present a neatly packaged case decorated with the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing.” He then opened the box to show the jury it was empty.
Demissie said Phillipos never told the FBI he didn’t go to Tsarnaev’s dorm room. “What he said was, ‘I don’t remember,'” Demissie said.
He said Phillipos is not accused of touching Tsarnaev’s backpack or destroying evidence. He said Phillipos smoked marijuana numerous times earlier on April 18, 2013, and could not remember what he did that night.
“That’s all this case is about – a kid high out of his mind, saying, ‘I don’t remember,'” Demissie said.
When FBI agents told Phillipos that other people had said he was in Tsarnaev’s dorm room, Phillipos said, “Then I guess I was there.”
“He was so high, he could not remember,” Demissie said.
He said Phillipos finally told the agents what they wanted to hear after multiple interviews and hours of questioning.
“That statement was signed by a scared, intimidated and threatened 19-year-old,” he said.
Prosecutors say Phillipos went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room with Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, two friends who were convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for removing the backpack, Tsarnaev’s laptop and other items from the room.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann told Judge Douglas Woodlock that Tazhayakov will testify – possibly on Tuesday – as a prosecution witness during the trial.