BOSTON (Reuters) - Jury selection was set to begin on Monday in a U.S. court in Boston for the trial of the first of three friends of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, charged with obstructing the investigation into the deadly blasts.
Federal prosecutors contend that Kazakh exchange student Azamat Tazhayakov, along with two schoolmates, went to marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's dorm room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth three days after the April 15, 2013, attack and removed a laptop computer and backpack containing empty fireworks shells.
One of Tazhayakov's lawyers, Matthew Myers, last week told reporters that his 20-year-old client had rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors, contending that there was a "lack of evidence" to convict the man.
A key issue at the trial, set for opening statements next week, will be whether to admit statements that Tazhayakov and fellow Kazakh exchange student Dias Kadyrbayev made to investigators after they were ordered out of their New Bedford, Massachusetts, apartment by heavily armed federal agents and questioned for hours at a police station without having attorneys present.
Kadyrbayev, 20, testified at a pretrial hearing early this month that he had not felt that he was free to go during the questioning. The two were arrested on April 20, 2013, on immigration violations.
U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock has said he will declare a mistrial if he finds the statements were not voluntary.
Three people were killed and 264 injured in the bombing at the historic Boston Marathon.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both charged with obstruction of justice, could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. A third friend, Robel Phillipos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, faces up to 16 years if convicted of the less serious charge of lying to investigators.
Prosecutors have not charged any of the men with a role in the bombing itself. They contend that Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, placed two homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the race's crowded finish line and three days later fatally shot a university police officer while attempting to flee the city.
Tamerlan died after a gunbattle with police later that night. Dzhokhar is awaiting trial on charges that carry the threat of execution if he is convicted.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott