Last Wednesday, the Boston Bomber trial began with a startling admission: Lead defense attorney Judy Clarke, speaking on the behalf of her client, 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, used her opening statement to clear the air and lay out her intentions.
"It was him," she told the jury.
With the pesky matter of the 30 federal criminal charges largely brushed aside, Clarke posed a rhetorical question: "So why a trial?" Her mission, it became clear, is not to prove the innocence of her client but rather to keep him alive.
In order to keep capital punishment off the table, Clarke is taking on the uneasy task of making a jury feel sorry for a guy she's already admitted is a homegrown terrorist.
So Clarke must illustrate that Tsarnaev was more of a typical college kid than a radicalized anti-American. She wants to prove that one of the perpetrators of the April 15, 2013, attack was influenced by the other—while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a pothead who looked like a member of the Strokes, chased girls, and geeked out at Game of Thrones, it was his brother, Tamerlan, who talked him into filling pressure cookers with shrapnel and wreaking havoc on an unsuspected crowd. After all, it was Tamerlan, as Rolling Stone reported in 2013, who brought religion into the household and who never quite assimilated into the American mainstream.
Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb opened arguments by showing photos of the people who died in the attack, hoping to anger the jurors and to paint Tsarnaev as a monster deserving no sympathy. On Monday, he continued with that strategy by having FBI Special Agent William Kimball showcase some of Tsarnaev's social media output, and specifically his tweets. There was a picture of a city the agent identified as Mecca, and Cyrillic text that he translated as "I shall die young." Perhaps most damning was a quote he said came from Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent al Qaeda terrorist killed by US drone attack in 2011.
The agent insinuated that a Twitter account under the name J_Tsar (Tsarnaev's nickname was Jahar) showed the defendant hated America and was planning jihad well in advance of the 2013 Boston Marathon. But cross-examination by defense lawyers quickly made the feds look incredibly silly.
For instance, the account's cover photo that was supposed to be Mecca was actually a mosque in Grozny, the capital of Tsarnaev's homeland, the Chechen Republic. That ominous tweet that was interpreted as a death wish? That was actually a lyric from a Russian pop song—something that Kimball might have figured out had he bothered to follow links on the account, one of which led to the music. The alleged al-Awlaki quote came from the Koran.
Perhaps most embarrassing for the US Attorney's office and the FBI is that both agencies are apparently oblivious to American slang. That became blatantly clear when a Tsarnaev attorney named Miriam Conrad tore the whole testimony apart, asking him to define the phrase "mad cooked."
"Crazy?" the agent replied, incorrectly. (It means high.)
He had also misinterpreted references to Comedy Central shows Tosh.0 and Key and Peele. In fact, according to the Guardian the only slang the agent could identify correctly was "LOL."
On Tuesday, the jury also got to see the very-not-normal note about martyrdom that Tsarnaev scrawled while awaiting capture. But when you're trying to prove someone hates America, it's not great for your case if the accused ends up knowing more about the country's youth culture than you do. And these goofs show that the prosecution is also painting Tsarnaev as a "stereotypical" terrorist when the reality is much more complex and terrifying. After all, what, in 2015, does a normal terrorist act like? And if he or she can go from riffing off of Comedy Central to murdering human beings—how scary is that?
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.