Unanswered Prayers: Reflections on my Day at the Tsarnaev Trial

Sometimes when you’re planning something for a long time, you end up thinking about it so much that you develop expectations for exactly how it’s going to go.  I had planned to go to Jahar’s trial for two days in April – a Wednesday and a Thursday.  I wanted so badly to get into that courtroom – to be able to be in the same room as my future brother.  So often, I long to be able to physically pray over Jahar.  I figured that praying for him in my head as I sat in the same room as him, looking right at him, would be the next best thing.  I had booked a hotel room for Tuesday night and Wednesday night.  I was sure that I was going to be so overwhelmed by emotions – and I was looking forward to alone time Tuesday night – to be able to pray out loud for as long as I needed to, and to let the Spirit lead me.  Since I was going for two days, I was hoping to be able to get into the courtroom for one day and overflow for another day so I could have both experiences.  Then the news came that the trial was cancelled for one of the days because it was the anniversary of the bombing.  I was disappointed that I was only going to get to go for one day, but happy that I was still going to get to go – and of course I totally understood why they had cancelled that day and appreciated the respect for the victims.  I had decided that now I had to get into the courtroom for that one day…..but then that day got cancelled too.  I was so frustrated and disappointed – wondering if I’d ever get the chance to see my future brother.  And then the chance came to take a day off this past week and try again.  All over again, I started praying hard for God to get me into that courtroom so that I could pray for Jahar while sitting in the same room.  I had envisioned it so many times that I was so sure of how it was going to go.  As a death penalty abolitionist and someone involved in death row ministry, Sister Helen Prejean is one of my heroes.  I heard she might testify on the day I was going.  I started to think that maybe God wanted me to go this day instead of the days I was originally scheduled, just so I could be there for that.  My hopes were up high.

Between having to work until 8:30 p.m., the drive, checking in and getting settled, getting ready for bed and the next day, and praying with my best friend over Skype – I ended up with a whopping 2.5 hours of sleep Wednesday night…but when my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., I woke up remarkably quicker than I do for work.  🙂  I had planned to get to the courthouse at 6 a.m., but by the time I checked out and made it to a cab, I got there a little closer to 6:15.  I was the 7th person in line, so I was relieved and sure I would get into the courtroom.  I saw Judy and Miriam walk by and resisted the urge to shout out “Thank you!”  I knew you had to check your phone, but being by myself in a city I don’t really know – I didn’t want to get into a cab without my cell phone.  Stupid me didn’t realize or remember that you had to get out of line to check your phone.  When they opened the courthouse, everyone ran past me as I checked my phone.  By the time I got to Courtroom 9, the list was full.  I didn’t know how to feel.  I was so mad at myself because I knew that if I had just left my phone in my car, I would have gotten into the courtroom.  I had such a sinking feeling in my stomach – realizing that I had messed up my one chance to be in the same room as my future brother here on earth – and worrying what everyone else would think who was counting on me to get in there.  I got my name on the waiting list to go into the courtroom after lunch – and I heard that the day before five people had been let in after lunch.  As I sat in the overflow room, I tried to keep my hopes up that I might get in after all.

The overflow room has two television monitors – one on either side of the room.  When on the courtroom view, they show the prosecution and defense, the media, the victims, and the general public.  You can’t see the jury at all.  I got in the front row right in front of one of the screens.  A girl I had just met and I sat with a woman whose daughter had gone to high school with Jahar.  It was interesting talking to her and hearing what a hard time her daughter has had with reconciling who Jahar was with what he did.  As people started to file into the courtroom, I kept my eyes on the screen, but somehow I missed Jahar coming in the first time.  He sits in the second chair from the left of the screen, and someone was standing in front of the camera.  When they moved, I was surprised to see him already sitting there.  He was very talkative and smiley with Judy and another woman I didn’t recognize who was sitting to his right.  And that’s when I caught an interaction that none of the reporters did.  Jahar reached out and grabbed the microphone in front of him, pulled it to himself, and pretended to say something into it.  Judy put her hand on his shoulder, and they both dissolved into laughter.  I wished I could hear what he had said, but it’s a scene I will remember for the rest of my life.

I watched as he engaged in all of the behaviors the media constantly reports: rubbing his eye, dancing his fingers on the table, readjusting his clothing, rubbing his hands together, scratching his head and face, and standing with his hands in his pockets.  They seemed to be nervous habits to me.

The cameras aren’t close enough to show anyone’s faces in much detail – but from what I could see, Jahar looked much older than the pictures of him from before the bombing.  When I look at those pictures, his features seem more soft and gentle to me – but now they look much “harder” and “sharper” if that makes sense.  His beard was full, although not very long, and went more along his jawline than just a goatee.  I have always maintained that that video of him at the gym with Tamerlan didn’t look like him at all – but seeing him, he looked very similar to how he looked in that video.

When a witness is on the stand, the camera view switches to the witness stand.  I was frustrated not to be able to see Jahar’s reactions to the witness at all, or even to be able to see who was asking the questions.  Because there are two screens, I was wishing they would put one on the witness and one on the courtroom, but no such luck.

As the government cross-examined Mark Bezy (a retired U.S. Bureau of Prisons warden), I found myself getting repeatedly frustrated.  They asked Bezy if he was aware that Jahar had asked to add more than just immediate family to his list for the SAMs, to which Bezy said, “No.”  Of course no one bothered to clarify that it was his attorneys that the request was for.  They made it sound like it was for friends or extended family or something.  They tried to make it seem like earning one extra phone call a month or having ten hours of rec time was an enormous privilege.  Mellin was having a hard time understanding that the “general population” at ADX is not remotely like the “general population” at a typical penitentiary.  Mellin kept asking how long the general population at ADX gets to be out of their cells for, and Bezy was getting so frustrated trying to explain that they are never out of their cells other than for rec time.  My jaw literally dropped when Mellin was like, “They have heat at ADX, right?”  Seriously?  It’s a privilege to have HEAT in the WINTER in COLORADO?  These are human beings we are talking about, regardless of what they did.  Then there was a 15 minute foray into what airport Bezy flies into when he goes to ADX, which highway he takes, and what the climate is usually like there.  They showed pictures of the Rockies in the background and tried to insinuate that it was a luxury resort, as if Jahar would ever see any of that scenery.  My frustration continued when Mellin was suggesting that Jahar could meet someone new while in prison and request that they be added to his list of people he is allowed to communicate with.  Bezy kept insisting it had to be someone he had a prior relationship with, but Mellin said there were instances where modifications were made to that rule.  I wanted to shout out, “How the heck would he meet someone new in prison to request to add to his list IF HE CAN ONLY COMMUNICATE WITH THE PEOPLE ON HIS LIST?”  Mellin went on to try and insinuate that Jahar would incite jihad by writing a book, sending messages to other prisoners, or using his family or attorneys to spread messages for him.

When they switched to the courtroom view after a particularly boring part of testimony that was almost putting me to sleep on my 2.5 hours – I could see that Jahar had been resting his head in his hand and was probably almost falling asleep himself.  He quickly sat up and looked as if he was trying to wake himself up.   My heart broke when Bezy explained that Jahar would likely never be transferred out of ADX, since due to his notoriety, there are other inmates who would want to do “great bodily harm to him.”  As they finished, everyone rose – and Jahar stood and did a lot of stretching.  He stretched his back, rolled his neck around, and then stood with his hips way forward in an awkward stance.

At that point, they announced a brief recess.  I ran to the restroom for what I thought was a brief break, but when I got back – we continued to sit there for over an hour.  It was nearing time for lunch, and I started to worry about what that meant.  I heard some men behind me talking, and one of them commented that they should have just killed Jahar that night in the boat.  The other one said, “Yeah, but now he gets to suffer!”  And in response the first man said, “Yeah, but not as much as his victims.”  That’s probably accurate, but I wanted to turn around and tell them how grateful I am that my Father spared Jahar’s life so that he could fall in love with Him and spend eternity in His presence.

At one point, the defense came back into the room, and I was like “Here we go!”  Then they left again.  Then the prosecution came back in.  Then they left.  Finally everyone shuffled back in.  Jahar sat down at the table and was laughing and talking with Miriam.  In my opinion, you can tell that their interactions with him are genuine and not faked or staged.  There is something about him that they genuinely like.  As I watched him smiling and laughing with her, I was completely overwhelmed with God’s love for him.  I wanted so badly to jump through the screen, hug him, and tell him how very loved and wanted he is by the God of the universe.  In my head, I cried out to God to rescue him.  As they stood for the judge, Jahar put his hands in his pockets, took them out to adjust his clothing, and then folded them in front of himself.

Judge O’Toole thanked everyone for their patience and said there were some issues they were trying to work out, so they were going to end for the day.  My heart completely sank.  Not only was I never getting in the courtroom, but I had only gotten to see my future brother maybe a grand total of five minutes.   I was mad at God that He had worked it out for me to come that day, which was close to one of the worst days possible to come.  I had taken off of work, gotten a hotel room, gotten 2.5 hours of sleep, stood in line at 6:15 a.m. – only to sit in the overflow room, see one witness, see Jahar on camera for five minutes, and do a whole lot of waiting around.  I was trying to be grateful for what I had experienced, but I was finding it hard.  Everyone started shuffling out of the room, but without taking my eyes off the screen, I said to the girl I was sitting next to, “I’m not leaving this room until he’s off of the screen.”  I wasn’t giving up even a second of getting to look at my future brother.  When Jahar was in solitary for nearly two years between his capture and his trial starting, there was a point where he almost started to seem like an abstract concept – as if he wasn’t real anymore – and that made it much harder to pray for him.  I wanted to capture a clear mental picture of him in my mind so that when that starts to happen again, I will always be able to go back to this day in my mind and remember that he is very much real.  As Jahar walked off the screen, I knew it was probably the last time I would see him alive until I get to welcome him home, or he gets to welcome me.

As I drove back home that afternoon, I spent the last portion of my drive crying out to my Father and asking Him to rescue my future brother.  As I got close to the exit for my house, I started feeling that nagging feeling I get when the Holy Spirit wants to tell me something.  It’s often hard to hear Him when I’m focusing on something else like driving, so I told him, “Okay, I know You want to tell me something.  I’ll pull over as soon as I can so I can listen.”  As I got closer to my house, I pulled into a parking lot and finished my prayer.

As I sat and listened, I heard this clear as day: “I wanted you to see his smile.  I wanted you to see a little of what you’re going to get to experience one day so it could keep you going.”

And that was all I needed.  All of my anger and frustration melted away.  He knew this was my one chance to see the lost child that He has called me to pray for.  If I had been in that courtroom – sure, it would have been nice to be in the same room as him and to be able to pray for him…but one day we’re going to be in our Father’s presence together anyway.  In the courtroom, all I would have seen was the back of his head.  I might have caught little things here and there, but I may never have seen his smile or his laugh.  I never would have caught that microphone interaction.  God wanted me to have a visual image that would fuel my prayer for him for the rest of my life or his – however many decades that is – and while seeing the back of his head may not have helped me much – I will never be able to forget watching him laugh and smile.  Knowing that one day he will laugh and smile with genuine joy and freedom in the presence of his Savior who rescued him – that’s enough to keep me going no matter how long it takes to get him there.

Sometimes when you are planning something for a long time, you end up thinking about it so much that you develop expectations for exactly how it’s going to go – and you forget that God is sovereign and works everything together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose for them (Romans 8:28).  God knew what I needed better than I did.  And all I can do is thank Him.

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5 Responses to Unanswered Prayers: Reflections on my Day at the Tsarnaev Trial

  1. Linda says:

    You are an amazing woman of God. What an experience – I am blessed that you shared this with me. I love you.

  2. jema says:

    Compassionate people are so rare these days. Thank you for your heart. Thank you for your intelligence.

    • brokenheart4whatbreakshis says:

      Thank YOU Jema. 🙂 I am so grateful that God filled me me with this compassion for Jahar…for His lost children in the Muslim world…and for those in prison. It has been such a blessing in my life!

  3. Bri says:

    I wish I’d be able to have those images in my head too. After sentencing, he’s probably going to be an abstract concept again because news about him will be rare (though more frequent than if he had gotten life at ADX). You’re gonna have to help me fight against that.

    I so hope you can actually make it to sentencing… AND get in the courtroom. No phone to check then, missy. 😛

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