Heartbreak Hill: After a Guilty Verdict, Boston Keeps Running

Finish line


It was almost a forgone conclusion that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be found guilty.

His defense team admitted as much from the start.

Following this trial, as a Boston area local, has been like reading a book when you already know the ending. The question is how will the writers choose to tell the story.

Dzhokhar, the defense argued, was involved, but he under the influence of his older brother Tamerlan who died in a shootout with police before Dzhokhar was captured. Tamerlan was the main actor, the ideologue, the researcher, the assembler, the instigator. Dzhokhar, 19 at the time, was at sea, in a new country, without his parents, and struggling in school. Of course he followed his brother, his role model, his anchor.

The biography of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is well-known. He was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine with his face on the cover, looking like any stoned rock star; a gimmick that upset a lot of people here and elsewhere. When he was captured, it was hard to believe that all of the SWAT teams and the house to house searches in military gear, and the tanks in the streets were all for this kid.

There were mixed feelings about him being brought in alive. A trial would mean that we would relive this experience, again, and again. But it also meant that the victims and their families would have an accounting of the lives lived and lost, and the damage done, laid into the records of history.

Indeed there were many details discussed at the trial that got overshadowed by the original events. The experience and escape of Dun Meng, also known as Danny, whose car the brothers hijacked, was conveyed in his testimony, but also with accompanying surveillance video that is both harrowing and miraculous. The note Dzhokhar wrote, in the inside wall of the boat where he hid for those last hours before his capture, was shown riddled with bullet holes and stained with blood. Another chilling surveillance photo showed Dzhokhar standing on the sidewalk behind the family of eight-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the blast. Graphic photos of the dead and the injured, particularly Martin, reportedly moved the jury to tears.

In spite of multiple efforts by Tsarnaev’s defense team to get the trial moved, it remained in federal court in Boston. The attack made national and international news, but I’d like to think the judge saw that a local trial, in the community most affected, would add weight to the justice being served. Jury selection was arduous. In a state that isn’t big on capital punishment, potential jurors who rejected it outright were excluded. The guilt phase took three months. The penalty phase, which starts next week, is expected to take about as long. It’s been a long trial, and a long winter.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty on all 30 of the counts against him. Seventeen of those carry the possibility of the death penalty.

It’s worth noting that several polls show Massachusetts residents favoring life in prison over capital punishment. Even our Senator, Elizabeth Warren and our Attorney General, Maura Healy spoke out in favor of life. The defense team’s approach has always been about avoiding the death penalty. If they succeed, it won’t be because anyone believed he was just a follower.

In less than two weeks, Boston will host the Marathon for only the second time since the bombings. The faded finish line will be repainted, and in the next few days, runners will start arriving in town to survey the course. There is some relief that time is allowing us to reclaim the day, even if the work is not quite finished. We will continue to honor the dead and the injured, but unless one has a direct connection with the trial, there is a sense here that it is happening on the sidelines. Two years on, I find myself wondering what, exactly, the brothers accomplished.  They are not martyrs, they have not moved the needle on the country’s approach to terrorism. Our collective view of Islam remains as muddled as ever.  The Tsarnaevs set out to make a statement. Yet the only message we really have from them has been, literally, shot full of holes.

The brothers broke our hearts, but couldn’t touch our spirit. Live or die, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be largely forgotten. Boston will keep on running.

Melissa M. Tingley is a writer, instructional designer, and 12-year veteran of her local school board. She has lived and worked in the Boston area for 30 years, always learning something new.

Image credit: Melissa Tingley

  • Julie R

    Yes, you nailed this, Melissa. Whether he lives or dies, life goes on, even for the families of the dead.

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