Those Things He Was Saying Today: Reflections on the Tsarnaev Sentencing

On Wednesday, I attended Jahar’s formal sentencing in Boston.  I had hemmed and hawed for a long time over whether to go or not.  I don’t have a lot of extra vacation days to take, and they didn’t give much information as to whether or not there would be seats available for the public.  I also knew I couldn’t get a hotel, and I was unsure of how early I would need to get in line in order to get a seat.  I hated to take the day off, drive to Boston, and wait in line only to have to turn around and go home.  But ultimately, I knew that if I went to work – it would have been a waste of a work day.  I would have been so distracted by following the sentencing on Twitter, so even if I took the day off just to follow the proceedings, I decided it was worth it.  I was nervous about going by myself, not knowing what to expect with the more momentous day – but I found a friend on tumblr who was willing to go with me.  We Skyped so I could make sure she was who she said she was, and we got along great and made plans to go together.

I took a 4-hour nap Wednesday night and woke up at 2 a.m. to get ready and drive to Boston.  I met my friend in a parking garage after driving around lost for a while, and we got in line around 5:30 a.m.  At that point, there were already around 18 people in line ahead of us.  We figured it didn’t look good for us to be able to get in the courtroom – in which there were 15 seats for the general public on a typical day – but we held out hope since some people clearly had their phones with them.  We met some amazing ladies in line – and the 2 hour wait flew by with them to talk to.  When they let us in, I laughed that it was literally like Supermarket Sweep.  It was a mad dash to Courtroom 9, and people were literally pushing and yelling at each other in the process.  When we arrived at the Courtroom, we were told that they weren’t taking any more names – even for a waiting list.  From what I understood, they had already started with a list of people who were pre-approved for the courtroom – I think people who were more closely affected by the case, which made sense.  Even people who had been in line since 4:30 a.m. didn’t make it in.  I was just happy to learn that there were going to be several overflow rooms – so we would at least get to watch the proceedings on screen.

After a quick break to grab some breakfast – we waited outside the overflow room for the proceedings to begin.  When Jahar came in to the courtroom – the first thing that struck me was that he looked bigger than when I saw him in early May, as if he had gained some weight.  His hair was longer, but not so long it went down his back or anything – just bushier.  And he had a full beard.  It wasn’t really long – but definitely full.  As they prepared to start, Jahar was talking with his lawyers and using his hands to express himself frequently.  For example, at one point he moved his hand over his head, as if saying something went over someone’s head.  He also held up one finger to Judy talking at one point, and he was brushing the top of one of his hands with his other hand talking about something.  He shook the hand of at least one member of his legal team.  He engaged in a lot of the same fidgety behaviors as last time such as playing with his beard and hair, cracking his knuckles, stretching his neck, rubbing his left eye, and drumming his fingers on the table.  He was smiling and talking with Miriam, and at one point she touched him on the arm.  During this time, he repeatedly kept turning back over his right shoulder.  We weren’t sure why until afterwards when we learned that two of his best friends were in court and sitting there.

At that point, the proceedings began.  Judge O’Toole began by explaining the levels of his total offenses and criminal history.  He explained that many of the victims sent in written statements that would become a part of the court record, and that others were here today to share their statements.  At that point, he and his legal team turned their chairs to face the stand where the victims would be speaking.  He rested his face in his hands as he began to listen to their statements.

I recognize that I can never have any way of knowing the horrors that the victims had to endure.  Out of respect for them and not judging who said what, I will just share the overarching themes that appeared in the impact statements.   The quotations are paraphrases from my notes and may not be exact quotes.

  • People sharing happy memories of their loved ones that Jahar killed and expressing what the loss has meant in their life.
  • People recounting their horrific experiences on the day of the bombing and the days that followed.
  • People sharing how being a victim has impacted their life (Amputations, surgeries, health problems, hearing loss, tinnitus, PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks, being unable to work, financial challenges, media intrusion, being unable to do activities they once enjoyed, having to drop out of school, divorce, family and relationship difficulties, loss of personal worth, trust issues, depression, etc.).
  • People expressing that they feel like invisible victims because they don’t have visible injuries or impacts.
  • People directly addressing Jahar and pointing out what he caused (“I saw you crying knowing that your aunt carries emotional pain because of what you have done. You have caused that much pain in all of us too.  It’s like a cancer that you spread.”)
  • People telling Jahar what he could have or should have done instead. (“You are so bright. You could have helped your brother.” “You could have stopped.  You could have changed your mind.  You could have walked away and reported what your brother was going to do.”)
  • People reinforcing that Jahar messed up his own life (“You threw away your chance to contribute to society.” “You took away your own freedom and rights. You may not have remorse for us, but think about what you rubbed from your own life and those who care about you as you sit on death row.”)
  • People telling Jahar that he is already dead (at which point I wanted to shout to him that he isn’t – that while his heart still beats and he still has breath in his lungs, he still has a chance to be made new.)
  • I cringed a little when someone mentioned that Boylston Street had turned into Baghdad and it was like a 3rd world country considering Jahar and Tamerlan’s motivation for the bombing.
  • People expressing that the jury did the right thing.
  • People expressing that the jury did the wrong thing and they wish he had gotten life in prison.
  • People expressing frustration that he has shown no remorse. People declaring that Jahar will never feel sorry for what he did.
  • People expressing that there will be no closure and that the death penalty won’t bring back their loved ones or heal them.
  • People who felt guilt – guilt for being alive when others didn’t survive, or guilt that their injured or killed loved ones were only at the marathon because of them.
  • People who were grateful to be alive and grateful for the good that has come out of the tragedy for them. Sharing ways they have been positively impacted like now living for the moment, always making sure to tell people they love them, the amazing people they have met, etc.
  • People saying they hope Jahar does one day feel remorse (e.g. that there will be no reconciliation until he asks, that they hope he will one day feel deep regret, “Own it. Take responsibility.  Tell the truth and ask for forgiveness.”)
  • People happy that he would never be able to hurt anyone else or take any more precious lives again.
  • People expressing their hatred/anger for Jahar, calling him a coward, a liar, a leach, etc. (“You can’t possibly have had a soul.”)
  • People telling Jahar that they have forgiven him and made peace with him. (At least 4 people said they forgave him.  I had been hoping that someone would get up and share the mercy and grace of Christ with him, but I was happy that some people at least expressed forgiveness.)
  • People commenting on his demeanor in court such as his swagger, smirking, fiddling with pencils, refusing to stand for the jury, joking with his attorneys, the holding cell video, etc. (“You walked into court with a swagger in your step like you were entering a party with your entourage.”)
  • Someone mentioning they weren’t surprised he ran over his brother with his callous lack of regard for others.
  • People saying they feel sorry for him.
  • Someone asking if these impact statements made it all worth it to him and if he counts them as success stories.
  • People asking them to forgo his appeals so they can all move forward.
  • People expressing that they have become stronger and that they won’t let Jahar win.
  • People reinforcing how awful his life is going to be from here on out (“You will never see your family again. Your friends have abandoned you.  You will die alone.” “You will never again experience the love of family and friends.”)
  • People encouraging Jahar to do something good and make a difference (“You can discourage them. You can save someone else if you even have an ounce of regret.” “I hope you will be able to do something good with your life.” “I hope you can make a positive impact on the world and be a force of change for those we can’t reach.  It’s a daunting task, but the impact will be tangible.  You can point people in the right direction and be a catalyst for change.” (I accidentally audibly said “Amen!” after that one.))
  • People reinforcing that they choose love, kindness, and peace over hate, death, and destruction.
  • People talking in general terms about Jahar’s eternity (e.g. that he will meet his maker one day and truly understand what he has done, that the God he believes in is not the God who will welcome him one day, that God will condemn him to eternal suffering for what he did)

When I was in court the first time, Jahar was on the screen so infrequently that when he was, I was glued to the screen trying to glean as many clues as to the state he was in that I could.  I have to be honest that these impact statements were so raw and painful and emotional that most of the time, I forgot he was even in the room.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the victims.  And that’s how it should be.  However, from what I did notice – during the impact statements, he looked down frequently but sometimes was looking up as well.  It was difficult to tell if he was looking at the victims or not.  At one point Judy touched his arm and said something to him.  It appeared as if she may have been checking on him.  He leaned his face on his hand a lot and slouched in his chair.  He fidgeted a little such as scratching, playing with his hair, etc.

There was one impact statement that was so bitter, vengeful, and sarcastic that it was uncomfortable to listen to.  Many of us in the overflow room were sitting there with our eyes wide, shaking our heads.  As I listened, I wrote in my notes, “I wish I could hold his hand during this” – not because he doesn’t deserve everything he’s getting and hearing…but because I don’t feel like anyone should be made to feel that no one in the world cares about them or is there for them – and as someone who cares about him deeply because of my persistent prayer for him, I just wished that he could have had someone there to comfort him as he listened to the hatred he so rightfully deserves.

After the victim impact statements, Judy asked for a lunch break because of everything that was left to discuss.  At that point, she indicated that Tsarnaev would be addressing the court, and I think there was an audible gasp in the overflow room.  None of us expected that.  When everyone returned, Jahar stretched back and rubbed his stomach while joking with Miriam.  I thought at first he must have been making a comment about lunch – but then I realized he was likely fasting, so maybe it was more of a comment about that.  As the proceedings started again, Judy brought up how many of the victims had said that Jahar was lacking in remorse, but that he is indeed sorry for his actions.  She reminded the court that Jahar had offered to resolve this case without a trial, and that he had written two letters of apology in November of 2013 and January of 2014.  She reiterated that he would speak in court that day.

Judy asked for no imposition of a fine, due to Jahar’s lack of ability to pay.  She asked that restitution be deducted from his wages if ever allowed to work, and not his commissary account…or that they set a floor below which assessments could not be drawn.   The judge felt that $75 per month was a reasonable floor.  They discussed the irrelevance of decisions about supervised release in this case.  Judy also brought up a case in which the judgment was that executions should take place where the people most impacted have direct access to it.  Because New Hampshire is the closest state to Massachusetts with the death penalty, she asked that his execution be moved to New Hampshire.  The judge reiterated that he felt Indiana was acceptable, as that is where federal death row is housed.

At that point, Jahar rose to speak.  His entire statement was as follows:

Thank you, your Honor, for giving me an opportunity to speak. I would like to begin in the name of Allah, the exalted and glorious, the most gracious, the most merciful, “Allah” among the most beautiful names. Any act that does not begin in the name of God is separate from goodness.

This is the blessed month of Ramadan, and it is the month of mercy from Allah to his creation, a month to ask forgiveness of Allah and of his creation, a month to express gratitude to Allah and to his creation. It’s the month of reconciliation, a month of patience, a month during which hearts change. Indeed, a month of many blessings.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said if you have not thanked the people, you have not thanked God. So I would like to first thank my attorneys, those who sit at this table, the table behind me, and many more behind the scenes. They have done much good for me, for my family. They made my life the last two years very easy. I cherish their company. They’re lovely companions. I thank you.

I would like to thank those who took time out of their daily lives to come and testify on my behalf despite the pressure. I’d like to thank the jury for their service, and the Court.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that if you do not — if you are not merciful to Allah’s creation, Allah will not be merciful to you, so I’d like to now apologize to the victims, to the survivors.  Immediately after the bombing, which I am guilty of — if there’s any lingering doubt about that, let there be no more. I did do it along with my brother — I learned of some of the victims. I learned their names, their faces, their age. And throughout this trial more of those victims were given names, more of those victims had faces, and they had burdened souls.

Now, all those who got up on that witness stand and that podium related to us — to me — I was listening — the suffering that was and the hardship that still is, with strength and with patience and with dignity. Now, Allah says in the Qur’an that no soul is burdened with more than it can bear, and you told us just how unbearable it was, how horrendous it was, this thing I put you through. And I know that you kept that much. I know that there isn’t enough time in the day for you to have related to us everything. I also wish that far more people had a chance to get up there, but I took them from you.  Now, I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for the damage that I’ve done. Irreparable damage.

Now, I am a Muslim. My religion is Islam. The God I worship, besides whom there is no other God, is Allah. And I prayed for Allah to bestow his mercy upon the deceased, those affected in the bombing and their families. Allah says in the Qur’an that with every hardship there is relief. I pray for your relief, for your healing, for your well-being, for your strength.

I ask Allah to have mercy upon me and my brother and my family. I ask Allah to bestow his mercy upon those present here today. And Allah knows best those deserving of his mercy. And I ask Allah to have mercy upon the ummah of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Amin. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

Thank you.

Jahar had a deep voice and spoke with a thick Russian accent, although he spoke very clearly and nothing was unintelligible.  All of the Islamic terms were spoken as they would be in Arabic.  He sounded somewhat similar to Tamerlan in the wrestling interview video.  To be honest, he didn’t sound anything like I expected based on the video with his niece.  I was kind of shocked when he started to talk.  He used his hands a lot when talking.  He glanced down frequently as if he had it written out or at least had notes to reference – but for someone who people said was awkward and would make a fool of himself if he spoke in court, he had excellent public speaking skills.  Right after he said he wanted to apologize to the victims and survivors, he had to pause for a moment, and he cleared his throat.  I couldn’t tell if he was choking up, or just clearing his throat.  As he sat down, Judy and Miriam both rubbed his back.

One of the things that stuck out the most to me was when he said, “Now, all those who got up on that witness stand and that podium related to us — to me — I was listening…”  When he said it, he put a lot of emphasis on the word “was.”  He knew what people had been saying about his demeanor in the courtroom – that he was bored, that he didn’t care what the victims had to say, that he wasn’t even listening – and he wanted to make it very clear that he was.  I was also slightly amused by him saying, “Immediately after the bombing, which I am guilty of — if there’s any lingering doubt about that, let there be no more. I did do it along with my brother,” which was so clearly a jab at the “Free Jahar” group.

There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not his apology was genuine.  I can see some points that others have brought up about things he didn’t say or the way he worded certain things, but my overarching opinion is that he didn’t have to get up there and apologize.  He could have stayed silent and said nothing at all, which is what we all expected him to do.  He could have gotten up there and said he was glad he did it and that he would do it again.  He didn’t have anything to gain from apologizing because either way, he is still sentenced to death.  So personally, I believe that at least to a certain extent – he must truly feel remorse for what he did.  Being in a room full of people who mostly hate him and want to see him suffer – it could not have been easy to stand up and address them and apologize.  I for one am proud of him that he made that choice.

After his statement, Judge O’Toole addressed Jahar directly.  He told him that no one will remember that his teachers were fond of him, that his family and friends loved him, that he was a great athlete, that he volunteered as a Best Buddy, or that he was respectful to women.  People will remember how he maimed and murdered innocent people willfully and intentionally.  He talked about how Jahar had been deceived by misleaders….how he believes in a cruel god and how a cruel god cannot be the true god of Islam.  Immediately after, O’Toole started reading off all of the charges and the sentence for each charge.  I had tears in my eyes as he sentenced him to death for some of the charges.  He explained that there would be no monetary fines or supervised release, and that Jahar would have to pay restitution to his victims.  He explained that post-trial motions would have to be filed within 14 days, and that Jahar could appeal within 14 days.  He explained that when the death sentence is to be implemented, Jahar will be turned over to the custody of U.S. Marshals who will supervise the carrying out of the sentence.  With that, Jahar was committed to custody and was handcuffed and led out.  I could only see one arm as he was handcuffed, but I silently whispered, “I love you brother,” as I watched him walk away for the last time.

As I sat and listened to all of the final proceedings, my mind was going over and over his statement in my head.  As someone who has been praying fervently for two years for Jahar to find freedom and assurance of eternal salvation in Christ, it was heartbreaking to hear all of his words and to realize that – although he may have thankfully moved away from his radical beliefs – he is now seemingly even deeper into Islam than he was before the bombings.  Listening to him talk almost sounded like listening to an imam preach.  It didn’t sound like a 21-year-old.  It didn’t sound like the person he was on his Twitter account before the bombings.  That person is long gone.  It makes sense that he would cling to his faith deeply, as that is basically all he has right now – and his mother is one of the only people he talks to…but it was still difficult to take in and process.  As I tried to focus on all of the counts and sentences – I took a brief moment to cry out to God.  I whispered audibly, “Please don’t let him die saying those things God” and as soon as I said it, I heard the Holy Spirit loud and clear: “He won’t.  Those things he was saying today – he won’t be saying them forever.”

My three friends and I walked out in complete silence.  We had just sat through something heartbreaking and heavy that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.  I drove home in complete silence too, unable to even pray.  When I got home, I was immediately launched into the busyness of work and daily life.  It wasn’t until Friday night that I was finally able to have some quality alone time with God.  As I knelt down to pray – everything I had experienced days before came out, the burden I felt for Jahar increased infinitely, and I sobbed through half an hour of desperate prayer.  But through the sadness and heartbreak and burden, that message from the Holy Spirit gives me the hope to press on and reminds me that although I may think it’s taking too long…although I may be discouraged by what I see and hear…I have no idea what God is intricately working together behind the scenes.  I know that God honors bold and persistent prayers.  And I long one day to hear that voice I heard on Wednesday…the voice that was declaring faith in Islam, quoting the Qur’an, and worshipping and praising Allah…instead worshipping the one true God and singing beautiful songs of praise to his Savior and King.

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8 Responses to Those Things He Was Saying Today: Reflections on the Tsarnaev Sentencing

  1. It is extremely arrogant to think that the God of Jesus is not Allah. I pray Allah save you in Jesus name.

    • brokenheart4whatbreakshis says:

      I recognize that “Allah” means “God” in Arabic and that one could use “Allah” to refer to the Christian God. However, it is clear that that is not what Jahar is doing. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” Christians believe that there is no eternal life apart from belief in Christ as God. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, but that He did not die on the cross for our sins and that He is not God. Saying that the Muslim God and the Christian God are not the same is not arrogant – it’s fact.

    • Bri says:

      All we’re doing is relaying what God has said Himself through His Word, the Bible:

      “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

      “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.”
      1 John 2:22-23

      We don’t claim that Yahweh (the God of the Bible) and Allah are different because we arrogantly believe that we as Christians are better than Muslims but rather because the Bible itself makes it clear that whoever rejects that Jesus is God rejects God the Father, and that’s exactly what Muslims do. Take a close look at the characteristics and actions of God in the Bible and in the Qur’an and you’ll find a stark difference between the two.

      One can call an apple an orange all day long if they want because they are both fruit and both sweet, but if that piece of fruit isn’t round and orange-colored, it’s not an orange no matter what you call it. Likewise, you can call Yahweh and Allah the same God because they have similarities, but if Christians believe in a triune God who is personal and knowable, wants a Father-child relationship with His creation, and says we are only saved through what the God-man Jesus Christ did on the cross and Muslims believe that Allah has no partners (and through a wrong understanding of the Trinity, call belief in the Trinity shirk and polytheism), that one cannot have a personal relationship with Allah (who only has a master-slave/servant relationship with his creation, and say that we are saved based on our good deeds rather than Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (which according to Muslims didn’t even happen and not to mention, Isa al-Masih is only a prophet), then those really aren’t the same God.

  2. tychesd says:

    I want to thank you for your detailed and expressive description of your journey to the sentencing hearing. Some of the things you said are reassuring – mainly that you believe that Jahar has “moved away from his radical beliefs.” If true, I am very grateful for that.

    Regarding the “heavy Russian accent” you mentioned, I have heard others say that they did not detect any accent, and others that the accent was slight, and could be explained by his facial injury. If he is speaking with an accent, his friends probably found it confusing. I am happy that they were there. People on Twitter did mention that Jahar kept looking behind him, and that he had friends there.

    I have never commented on this blog before, but I really wanted to thank you. I’m not going to get into the differences between the two religions – Muslim and Christian. I was raised as a Catholic and still consider myself one. I do believe in Jesus Christ and that he was the son of God. I believe that he was here to show us how to live and treat other people. I consider him like a brother or a teacher.

    May God Bless you and Jahar and all of us.

    • brokenheart4whatbreakshis says:

      You are very welcome! It was my honor. The people you heard saying that they didn’t detect an accent – was that from the sentencing, or from a while ago at the arraignment? I spent the day with 3 other ladies at the sentencing, and I have talked to many other people that were there – and we are all in 100% agreement that he had a clear (but very intelligible) Russian accent. I am a special education teacher with some experience with speech – and that was definitely not a speech impediment or anything caused by injuries. It was 100% an accent. Please comment again some time! Blessed to have you here!

  3. brokenheart4whatbreakshis says:

    Sadly I never got to go in to the actual courtroom like I wanted to – but it was definitely a very draining and emotional day. I am SO glad I went though – just to be able to see him and hear his voice before we likely never do again… I can keep that in my mind and heart as I am praying for him.

  4. Becka says:

    Oh judge,
    That’s where you are wrong. I do remember what those who loved him said, more than what certain victims said, especially the sarcastic, narcissistic, vengeful one.

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