A friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted Tuesday of lying during the investigation into the 2013 attack. (Oct. 28)
BOSTON — The trial of a third friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ended in another conviction, but the amount of time the jury spent deliberating and its somewhat mixed verdict could help federal prosecutors argue against any new defense bid to move Tsarnaev's trial outside of Boston, according to some legal observers.
Robel Phillipos, 21, of Cambridge, was convicted Tuesday of lying to the FBI during the bombing investigation, specifically about being present in Tsarnaev's dorm room when two other friends removed a backpack containing fireworks and other potentially incriminating evidence.
The jury deliberated for more than 35 hours over six days before finding Phillipos not guilty of telling four of the nine lies he was accused of by prosecutors. His lawyers had argued that Phillipos was intimidated when he was questioned by the FBI and that he had smoked so much marijuana that his memory was clouded.
"Any time a jury splits the verdict, it shows deliberation and contemplation," said Gerry Leone, a former state and federal prosecutor in Massachusetts. "It sort of weighs against this whole idea that you can't get impartial and unbiased juries on these terrorism-related or marathon-related cases."
Tsarnaev's lawyers had argued that the trial should be moved outside Boston — preferably to Washington, D.C. — citing the broad emotional impact the bombing had on Massachusetts residents and the intense media coverage in the state. But Judge George O'Toole Jr. rejected that request, saying there's no reason to assume in advance that a fair jury cannot be selected in Boston.
Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who is now a defense lawyer, said that if Tsarnaev's lawyers raise the change of venue issue again, prosecutors could cite the jury's thoughtful deliberations in the Phillipos case as evidence that residents of Massachusetts "are not so overwhelmed by the tragic context of the marathon bombings and are actually able to sift through the evidence very carefully."
"All of that is support for the notion that Tsarnaev can get a fair trial here, but Tsarnaev's lawyers obviously would say there is a big difference between pot-smoking college students who told some lies and somebody who is accused of having killed innocent people on Marathon Monday," Pearlstein said.
The other two men who were in Tsarnaev's dorm room were convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for removing items from the room.
Steve Weymouth, a defense attorney who was not involved with the case, said he does not believe Tsarnaev can receive a fair trial in Boston, no matter how long the jury in the Phillipos case deliberated.
"I don't see how anyone who's from around here, who lived here then, could give this kid a fair trial," Weymouth said.
During Phillipos' trial, FBI agents testified he told them a string of lies about the night of April 18, 2013, before finally acknowledging he had been in Tsarnaev's room at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth with the two men who removed Tsarnaev's backpack and computer.
Phillipos' attorneys said they will ask the judge to vacate the convictions and also appeal the verdict based on their argument that any statements he made to the FBI were not "material" to the bombing investigation.