On the first day of testimony in the penalty phase of the Marathon Bombing trial, prosecutors portrayed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as "America's worst nightmare." Krystle Campbell's father, William Jr., barely held back tears describing his now dead daughter as "the light of my life."
But on some social media pages a parallel world exists, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is viewed as innocent, not guilty; A parallel world where Tsarnaev has achieved near rock star fame among some; a world where much of the evidence in this trial has been contrived and made up. There are disagreements for sure, but widely differing groups have united in a largely on-line effort to stop the possible execution of the 21-year old convicted murderer.
It is not clear how many informally "Friends of Tsarnaev" we are talking about, but it is a very small group for sure. Some are fellow Chechens or Russians. Elena Teyer, a Russian immigrant living in Savannah, Georgia, proudly and loudly supports Tsarnaev. In December, she disrupted a pre-trail hearing in U.S. District Court in South Boston when she shouted encouragement to the defendant in Russian. She later translated for reporters what she said:
"I said in court, 'Jahar, you have a lot of supporters. We pray for you. We're here for you Jahar. We know you're innocent."
Elena Teyer introduces herself as the mother in-law of Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen man who was shot to death in Orlando, Florida, in May 2013, by an FBI agent who was allegedly questioning him about a triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts, in which his friend Tamerlan Tsarnaev was also allegedly implicated. With Todashev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead, Teyer says her main mission now is to keep "Jahar" alive, using his familiar street name. But Teyer claims she is being harassed.
Teyer, a former U.S. Army soldier, does not consider herself to be a security threat, but the FBI does, she says. She says following the Marathon bombing and the killing of Todashev, she was visited on her job at the Fort Stewart Army base in Georgia by federal agents.
"They came to my commander and said 'Teyer she's now under official investigation because she's a threat to the FBI because she's going to buy a gun and kill FBI agent and his family'. This is ridiculous I would think. If people saying stuff like this they out of their mind."
Teyer, whose Army service record lists an honorable discharge, says she doesn't even own a gun.
"I want justice. Me personally I do everything the legal way."
Fatima Tlisova, an investigative reporter for the Voice of America Russian Service, has interviewed Elena Teyer.
"I met her three or four times."
Tlisova has also met with other so-called friends of Tsarnaev several times since 2013.
"In common the friends of Tsarnaev have one thing. Most of them believe in conspiracy theories. And people who believe, truly believe in conspiracy theories -- they think they are victims. So, that is not unusual for these type of people."
But paranoia, says Tlisova, doesn't mean Teyer's fears are irrational. Though Teyer is not Chechen, her slain son-in-law was. And that is significant, says Tlisova.
"The first year after the bombings in Boston I was getting an enormous number of messages from all over the United States from the Chechens who've told me that they've been harassed by the FBI. They've been visited frequently, interrogated."
And among them, says Tlisova, are some who have come to view Tsarneav sympathetically or empathetically.
Another group of Tsarnaev supporters have banded together via social media, mainly Facebook, under the banner "Free Jahar", and not all of them believe in conspiracy theories.
"There are several circles, and I steer clear of the conspiracy theories--there's fake blood and actors, etcetera. I do not condone that at all." Paula makes a point of saying that she is also not a so-called Jahar Fan Girl.
What Paula does believe is that Tsarnaev did not receive a fair trial
"And there's a lot of action going on throughout the Internet with people questioning the fairness of the trial."
Distrust of the U.S. is why Paula asked WGBH not to reveal her last name.
"People do not generally here in Toronto, and people around the world, do not trust the U.S. Government."
She belongs to a Facebook group that claims 14,377 members. But Paula, a legal staffer living in Toronto, Canada, insist they are not monolithic in their views. Some Friends of Tsarnaev are religious. Many are not. Most believe that he is innocent, despite Tsarnaev's conviction and his admission of guilt through his attorney.
Sara Ali, a Jahar supporter in Detroit, steered me to a YouTube video that she said the Marathon Bombing jury did not see, which suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers had been set up. But the video does not seem to demonstrate that at all.
Some Tsarnaev supporters believe he is guilty, but influenced by his brother, just as the defense team argues. The so-called friends of Tsarnaev are united in their opposition to U.S. prosecutors' legal efforts to have Jahar -- as they call him -- executed.
Paula in Toronto said: "They're the ones that have gone after the penalty and have selected a death-qualified jury. And if you look at it from their perspective the government has gone and got the gun and they're using the jury to pull the trigger."
Sasha, another Tsarnaev supporter, lives in London.
"Well I think even before you can even think about the death penalty in this case you need to go back to basics and grant him a fair trial. I think he should get a new trial maybe outside of Boston. And because there are so many questions that were raised during this trial more than there were questions that were answered."
And for Sasha the questions include, why did Eric Holder's Justice Department insist in pursuing the death penalty?
"Well I feel internationally that people will be against the death penalty for Mr. Tsarnaev given that 90 percent of the countries in the world have banished executions. It's such an outdated method that should have no place in modern society and it's extremely barbaric."
And Tsarnaev's execution would stir universal anger, says Paula in Toronto:
"Security concerns are huge and massive. This case is being watched by everybody around the world."
Yet, Tsarnaev supporters have been conspicuous by their absence at the U.S. courthouse in South Boston.
Elena Teyer's in-court outburst in December ironically prompted the defense to file a motion to keep Tsarnaev supporters away from the courthouse. Judge George O'Toole ultimately permitted demonstrations. Yet, the so-called Friends of Tsarnaev have not been seen during the trial.
Elena Teyer, speaking in heavy Russian-accented English from her home in Savannah, Georgia, says that is because she and others have been banned from the premises, and she fears showing up
"Exactly, even our supporters who were at the court to protest. They've been followed with FBI. FBI came to their houses, to their families, all of them. Everybody's scared to death now."
But U.S. Court officials told WGBH that neither Teyer nor other self-proclaimed friends of the defendant are barred from the U.S. courthouse in Boston. The FBI told WGBH that it will not comment on this matter while the Tsarnaev trial is in progress.
Those in front of the U.S. Courthouse who are actively protesting the prospect of imposition of the death penalty for the 21-year old Chechen are decidedly not friends of Tsarnaev. They also do not regard themselves as "anti-Tsarnaev" they said. Braydon Shanley was standing outside the court with other religiously-inspired demonstrators on a frigid Spring day holding a sign reading "Blessed Are the Merciful". He said he is spurred by Christian beliefs and neither pro nor anti-Tsarnaev sentiments.
"The implication of being pro-Tsarnaev is that you're anti-victim. And we're not anti-victim. I think that compassion naturally goes to the innocent victim. These are innocent victims. It's like bombing a wedding. So, it's not that we're insensitive to the victim. It's that we're trying to get compassion for the victimizer because all life is sacred."
In this way, Christian protesters, a former U.S. soldier from Russia under the watchful eye of the FBI, and young worldwide Facebook friends have formed an unlikely alliance to keep alive a man whose own lawyers declared guilty of the heinous crimes for which he was convicted. But whose continued life -- like a Rorschach test -- seems to mean many different things for different many people.
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