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Tsarnaev friend guilty of conspiracy, obstruction

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A former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student has been found guilty in federal court of obstruction of justice and conspiring to obstruct justice by hindering the investigation into his college friend, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reports.

Azamat Tazhayakov was convicted by a jury in US District Court in Boston. The panel had deliberated about 14 hours over three days.

Tazhayakov, 20, faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence on the obstruction of justice charge, and up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. Sentencing was set for Oct. 16, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office said.

It was the first case related to the Marathon bombings to go to trial. As the verdict was announced, Tazhayakov’s mother began to weep openly and his father appeared somber, at some points appearing to blink back tears. Their son, dressed in a blue suit, sat stoically, though at one point he lowered his head into his hands. Several times, he looked back at his parents.

Tazhayakov, a foreign student from the Kazakhstan, Atyrau, was convicted of the charges with respect to a backpack containing fireworks, a jar of Vaseline, and a thumb drive that he allegedly helped to take from Tsarnaev’s dorm several days after the April 15, 2013 bombings. A jury found him not guilty of the charges with respect to a laptop computer, which was also taken from the room.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz addressed reporters after the verdict outside the courthouse, saying she was “gratified” by the jury’s decision.

“They took their jobs very seriously,” she said. Ortiz also praised the work of the FBI and the two federal prosecutors, Stephanie Siegmann and John Capin, in the case.

Matthew Myers, one of the three New York defense attorneys who represented Tazhayakov, said they planned to appeal the verdict. He said the case was particularly difficult to try in a city still healing from the horrors of the bombing.

“It’s a difficult case to try in this culture,” he said, flanked by Diane Ferrone and Nicholas Wooldridge, the other two defense attorneys.

Myers said one issue they planned to appeal is the fact that the jury form asked jurors to vote on whether they found Tazhayakov guilty with respect to the two separate items: The backpack, containing fireworks and other items, and the laptop. Myers said jurors might have thought they were splitting the difference by finding the defendant guilty as to the backpack, and not the laptop; however, Myers said, his client’s exposure to prison was the same whether they found him guilty with respect to either or both of the items.

He said the defense team “bitterly disagreed” with Judge Woodlock’s decision to formulate the jury slip in that way.

One of the 12 jurors interviewed after the verdict, Daniel Antonino, 49, a software salesman with a teenage daughter, told the Globe outside the courthouse that the panel had been split 11-1 over convicting Tazhayakov for his role in the disposal of the backpack. After some conversations today, the lone holdout was convinced that a guilty verdict was warranted, he said.

Antonino said initially some jurors dismissed Tazhayakov as a “mama’s boy,” using a term referred to by one government witness, and a passive figure compared to his off-campus roommate, Dias Kadyrbayev, who played a more active role in taking the items from Tsarnaev’s dorm room. But the juror said that perception changed when one juror recalled testimony in which Tazhayakov once ordered Kadyrbayev to turn over a cap to the FBI, suggesting he was not just a passive figure.

Antonino also said prosecutors showed that it took Tazhayakov hours to admit to the FBI that he knew the backpack had been removed from Tsarnaev’s room, a delay that many jurors found to be a sign that Tazhayakov knew he was helping his friend evade a massive law enforcement dragnet.

Tazhayakov was charged with conspiring with Kadyrbayev, also a Kazakh, when they entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room on the night of April 18, 2013, hours after the FBI had broadcast photos of the two bombing suspects.

Prosecutors alleged that while Kadyrbayev took the lead in removing Tsarnaev’s backpack and laptop from the dorm room, Tazhayakov knew what was happening and condoned the plan to help protect Tsarnaev.

Kadyrbayev allegedly threw the backpack in a Dumpster, but it was later recovered in a search of a New Bedford landfill. The laptop was found by the FBI on the table of the off-campus apartment shared by Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev.

Defense attorneys argued that Tazhayakov was in the dark about what Kadyrbayev was doing that night, and was cooperative with law enforcement when he was questioned.

During the trial, which began about two weeks ago, prosecutors called on jurors to see Tazhayakov as a college student who didn’t do the right thing when it mattered, even when the full horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing were apparent. They said Tazhayakov could not have been oblivious to the bloody finish line scenes or his friend’s potential involvement.

Forensic analysis of Tazhayakov’s laptop and cellphones showed that he accessed videos of the bombing over and over again, prosecutors said, and as early as about 11 p.m. on April 18, 2013 — six hours after the FBI had released photos of the suspected bombers — Tazhayakov was putting Tsarnaev’s name in Internet searches.

That was still two hours before Tsarnaev’s older brother, the other suspect, was shot and killed in a police shootout, and about seven hours before the Tsarnaev brothers’ names were made public by the FBI.

Defense attorneys insisted that Tazhayakov was a sweetly-disposed clueless teenager consumed with playing video games and getting high, someone who never imagined his friend was the bomber.

They went to great lengths to cast their client as likeable, the one who urged Kadyrbayev to turn over additional evidence. The defense team pointed to a friend’s description of Tazhayakov as a “good kid.”

Tazhayakov is the first of three of Tsarnaev’s college friends to go to trial on charges that they interfered with the investigation. Kadyrbayev faces the same charges, and his trial is scheduled for early September. A third friend, Robel Phillipos, is charged with lying to authorities about his whereabouts the night of April 18, when he was allegedly at Tsarnaev’s dorm room when the items were taken.

Another friend of the Tsarnaev brothers, Quincy taxi driver Khairullozon Matanov, also faces charges in a separate case of destroying evidence in the investigation. He allegedly deleted files from his computer, tried to get rid of his cellphones, and lied to investigators about his encounters with the brothers in the days after the bombings. Among those contacts: He allegedly had dinner with the brothers the night of the bombings.

Prosecutors have not alleged that either the college friends or Matanov had any knowledge of the bombings beforehand.

Tsarnaev’s trial is scheduled for November. He and his older brother, Tamerlan, 26, are accused of setting off two makeshift pressure-cooker bombs at the Marathon finish line, killing three and injuring more than 260.

Three days later, authorities said, the brothers killed MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, setting off a manhunt that brought them into Watertown, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eventually captured. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev.

July 22 2014, 04:21

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