BOSTON (AP) — A college friend was convicted Monday of trying to protect Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by agreeing with another friend to get rid of a backpack and disabled fireworks they took from his dorm room three days after the attack.
Azamat Tazhayakov, a baby-faced 20-year-old, put his hands over his face and shook his head as guilty verdicts were read on federal charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy in the first trial stemming from the twin bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 near the marathon's finish line in April 2013. His mother sobbed loudly and rocked in her seat.
The jury found that Tazhayakov conspired with friend Dias Kadyrbayev to take from Tsarnaev's room a backpack containing fireworks that had been emptied of their explosive powder. Prosecutors said the explosive powder could have been used to make bombs. The backpack and fireworks were later recovered from a landfill.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers both told the jury it was Kadyrbayev who actually threw the items away, but prosecutors said Tazhayakov agreed with the plan and was an active participant.
Juror Daniel Antonino, 49, said the panel heavily debated the charges but in the end believed Tazhayakov had impeded the investigation.
"They took materials from that room that they never should have touched, and that's what he is going to pay the price for," Antonino said.
Tazhayakov faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence for obstruction and a five-year maximum for conspiracy at sentencing, which was scheduled for Oct. 16. The verdicts came less than three years after he arrived in the U.S. from his native Kazakhstan, hoping to get an engineering degree at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
Prosecutors said Tazhayakov quickly became friends with Kadyrbayev, who was also from Kazakhstan, and the two also became friendly with Tsarnaev who, like them, spoke Russian. Tsarnaev, who lived in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, had come to the U.S. as a child with his family. He turns 21 on Tuesday.
The three men often hung out together, in Tsarnaev's dorm room or at the off-campus apartment Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev shared. Friends testified that the three men enjoyed playing video games and smoking marijuana.
During the trial, prosecutors showed jurors video of Tazhayakov at the university gym with Tsarnaev the day after the bombings. Both appeared relaxed. Tazhayakov's lawyers said the footage showed their client had no idea Tsarnaev was involved in the bombings until days later, when the FBI released photos of him and his brother, Tamerlan, as suspects.
Tazhayakov's lawyers argued that it was Kadyrbayev who removed the items from Tsarnaev's dorm room and then threw them away. Kadyrbayev faces a separate trial in September. A third friend, Robel Phillipos, is charged with lying to investigators and is also scheduled for trial in September.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped but was soon found, wounded and hiding in a boat dry-docked in a backyard in suburban Watertown.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in November. He faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.
Defense attorney Matthew Myers called the Tazhayakov verdict "somewhat surprising" and said it was difficult to try the case in Boston, where emotions run high over the bombings. He said he believes jurors felt a "certain pressure" to find his client guilty.
"We understand what this town has been through. ... It's hard to overcome that bias," Myers said.
Myers said lawyers will appeal the verdict, at least in part on a verdict form that asked jurors to decide whether Tazhayakov obstructed justice and conspired to obstruct justice on both a laptop computer that was taken from Tsarnaev's room and the backpack containing fireworks.
The jury found Tazhayakov not guilty of participating in the plan to take the laptop, but guilty on the plan to take the backpack and fireworks. They had to find him guilty of only one of them to convict him of the charge.
"We think it may have distracted the jury," Myers said of the verdict form.
FBI agents testified during the trial that Tazhayakov told them he and Kadyrbayev decided to take the backpack, fireworks and Tsarnaev's computer hours after Kadyrbayev received a text message from Tsarnaev that said he could go to his dorm room and "take what's there."
Myers told the jury his client was a naive college kid who was prosecuted because he was a "friend of the bomber."