This story was originally published on January 27, 2015, and updated on March 4, 2015.
Today marks the first day of the trial that will decide the fate of the alleged Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The 21-year-old stands accused of more than 30 charges related to the explosions that killed three and wounded hundreds at the Boston Marathon two years ago. After a painstaking, two-month-long jury selection, 18 people — 12 jurors and six alternatives — have been chosen. Among them are a mother of twins, an actuary whose cousin perished in the 9/11 attacks, a house painter, and a nurse. Several of the jurors have already admitted that they think Dzhokhar is guilty, though they've said they can keep an open mind.
That's inside the courtroom. Outside, there will also be a small but committed group of women following the trial closely; they believe Tsarnaev is innocent.
This community first sprang into being online in the days after the attack on April 15, 2013, while Bostonians were still reeling, an unlikely community sprung up on the Internet. As Americans came together in grief and anger at yet another act of terrorism on their soil, the young man whose face accompanied all front-page news had amassed a fan club.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two suspected brothers, was killed by police in a shootout in the days after the attack, but Dzhokhar — or Jahar, as he was called by friends — was taken into custody. He was only 18 at the time, and, in the photos that rapidly circulated, he looked fresh-faced, boyish, and to many, handsome. Online communities of his (mostly teenage) supporters sprang up, trading theories about his innocence and gushing about his looks, under the #FreeJahar hashtag.
Now, nearly 2 years later, the ranks of Dzhokhar's supporters have slimmed. Gone are the hordes of breathless fangirls. Instead, his few remaining supporters are women in their 30s and 40s. Over the last few weeks, as Dzhokhar has appeared in court for pretrial hearings, this small group of older female supporters has faithfully shown up at the courthouse with posters proclaiming his innocence. They've spent hours on online forums, desperately searching for other explanations for the bombing. They've organized protests in his honor and faced angry bombing survivors who are horrified by their behavior.
Why would anyone take such an unpopular — and public — stand? We spoke to three die-hard Dzhokhar supporters to find out. Each has her own theories and ideas, but the common thread is an emotional connection: they see Jahar as childlike and emotionally vulnerable, and the maternal empathy they feel seems to override everything else.
Amber and Karin, fearing reprisal, asked us not to use their real names.
Karin Friedemann, a Boston-based freelance writer, believes Dzhokhar is being framed for the bombing by the government. Unlike most Dzhokhar sympathizers, who prefer to stay anonymous because they are so loathed by the public, Friedemann openly supports him by sharing her thoughts on her blog and attending as many court hearings as she can. "He's almost like a Christ figure," she says. "He gives people from different backgrounds something to talk about. It is one of the things that made me passionate about the issue; as a local, I felt that I owed it to all his supporters to be at the courtroom and tell them what was happening."
While Friedemann tries to stay objective and cerebral about the case, part of what sustains her passion is the sympathy she feels for Dzhokhar, which is evident in her writing. Take the following blog post she wrote after attending his pre-trial hearing:
"He looked thin and seemed physically weak… Jahar sported wild, unkempt curly hair that was almost an afro, standing many inches above his head. He has grown a short beard. His eyes were downcast most of the time. He touched his face and nose a lot. His feet remained in shackles, while he sat in a relaxed slouch with his knees open throughout the 25-minute hearing. His facial expression seemed a bit weird and befuddled — quite intense, yet not quite there — perhaps a side effect of being kept in isolation for over a year. He seemed almost disoriented, but maybe he was just exhausted from being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night."
She acknowledges that it is easy to feel drawn to Dzhokhar simply because he looks so young and innocent. "He's someone that you can easily relate to," she says. "When you see other psycho killers on the TV, they look like psycho killers, but Jahar doesn't look like that."
Friedemann has become a bit of a celebrity within Facebook groups of Dzhokhar supporters, such as 'Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is Innocent,' which now has over 14,000 members. The most committed Dzhokhar fans on these forums have formed close relationships offline. Friedemann tells me that over the holidays, people who met in these groups visited each others' homes and exchanged presents.
Right now, Friedemann is perhaps the most visible of Dzhokhar's supporters. At Dzhokhar's pretrial hearing on December 18, 2014, she held up a poster showing her support for him in front of the federal courthouse while a victim of the Boston bombing lifted his prosthetic leg and waved it angrily in her face. Photographs of this confrontation appeared widely on the news, which she says has turned her neighbors against her. "After that day, I tried to get a haircut, and the owners of my local hair salon refused me service," she says.
Amber, a 31-year-old mother of two who lives in Canada, believes that evidence points to Dzhokhar's innocence, and she often thinks about what Dzhokhar's mother would be feeling under these circumstances. "I have a 4-year-old son," she says. "When I think that this could be him — that he could be treated like this even though he is innocent — it just breaks my heart. His mom can't do anything; she has no say and no power. So, in some ways, I feel like we are trying to do what they can't do by standing up and fighting for him."
When news of the bombing first appeared on Canadian news stations, Amber went online and got sucked into discussions about how the police had gotten the wrong guy. "I connected with people on Twitter and Facebook who led me to articles pointing out the inconsistencies in the story, and so I just kept digging and digging and digging," she recalls. Ultimately, Amber's doubts really centered on one thing: the Tsarnaev brothers' backpacks. "They said in the indictment that the backpacks were black, but Jahar and Tamerlan's backpacks were not black," she says emphatically. "And, when you see how they were walking around with those backpacks, it does not look like they could have been carrying pressure cookers, which are extremely heavy. They look like they could have had nothing heavier than gym clothes in there."
She tells me that she is a fan of police procedural dramas, so being confronted with a real-life case with so many unanswered questions intrigued her. On online forums, Amber and other Dzhokhar supporters gather documents related to the case and parse them together. It has become a fulfilling way for Amber to spend her time when she is not tending to her kids or working at her job as a professional fundraiser. As the movement has become a bigger part of her life, Amber says she has become more and more emotionally invested in Dzhokhar's fate. "I have young children, so I can't be on these sites every single day, but I am on there as much as I can," she says. "It's a big part of my life, for sure."
Karina, a New York-based event planner in her mid-30s, is less sure about whether or not Jahar is guilty, but is worried that he's a young boy who might be abused by the system. She has been instrumental in using her professional event planning skills to organize live protests. She was among the protesters who stood outside the courthouse when Dzhokhar plead not guilty to all the charges against him in July 2013, and Karina was also present in December 2014 at Dzhokhar's pretrial hearing.
After that last protest, Dzhokhar's defense team petitioned the court to ban all self-appointed supporters like her from demonstrating for the duration of the trial. His lawyers specifically refer to Friedemann's ugly confrontation with the bombing victim as evidence that protesters can adversely affect Dzhokhar's trial by creating the false impression that Dzhokhar agrees with their "outrageous conspiracy theories," including the idea that "the bombing and the survivors' injuries were staged."
This news came as a huge blow to Karina, and she took it very personally. "I'm very shocked and hurt to hear that the defense team is going against the supporters," she tells me. "We were there to bring awareness to the fact that he should get a fair trial, and they are saying that we are screwing up his chances of getting a fair trial, which makes no sense." She feels that the media has unfairly lumped demonstrators like her with conspiracy theorists and other extremists. At the last protest, for instance, a man claimed he was happy the bombing took place. "I don’t know if he was an agent provocateur who was paid to make us look like we are supporting terrorism by standing with us," Karina says. "But, whatever the case, we shouldn't be demonized because some people are a little bit off."
Still, despite these challenges, Karina says she plans to continue organizing these protests, but out of respect for the wishes of Dzhokhar's lawyers, she will move the site of any future demonstrations farther away from the courthouse. "We're going to give this a break for now, just to let this blow over," she says. "I also want to observe Jahar and the defense team's strategy before we plan for the next protest. We're not giving up because of this."
The same formula appears to drive all the women at the heart of the #FreeJahar movement: They are all inherently suspicious of the government, and they all react to Dzhokhar with tenderness, often with a dash of motherly, protective instinct. They are drawn to being part of a small but tight-knit community of outsiders who can face society together, like a scrappy band of underdogs. Being a Dzhokhar supporter gives them purpose and meaning; each of the women I spoke to were excited to do their part for the movement, whether this meant reporting from the courthouse, organizing protests or parsing through documents in a CSI-style investigation.
Many observers find the behavior of these women just as worrying as the fangirls' — misplaced maternal sympathy can be just as powerful and irrational as a teenage crush. However, if there is any hope to be found within the community of Dzhokhar supporters at all, it seems to be this: When you put aside the conspiracy theories, the one thing they have in common is their belief that Dzhokhar deserves a fair trial. And, this, on its own, is not an unreasonable aim, but a right upheld by the Constitution. The question, though, seems to be whether empathy has a place in a trial like this one. When confronted with a tragedy this vast and evidence this damning, is it still worth considering how Dzhokhar is not so different from us or from our children?