BOSTON (Reuters) - A college friend of the accused Boston Marathon bomber was found guilty on Tuesday of making false statements to authorities in a terrorism investigation, as a federal jury did not accept his defense that he had smoked so much marijuana he was too high to lie.
Robel Phillipos, 21, was charged with lying about having visited suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room three days after the 2013 attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260.
Phillipos showed no emotion as the verdict was read in federal court in Boston. Later, he said little to journalists as he walked outside the city’s waterfront courthouse to a waiting car. He faces up to 16 years in prison.
Phillipos, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, had accompanied two friends who removed a backpack containing empty fireworks shells from the dorm room of the suspected bomber. He was found guilty on two counts of lying to investigators, one for saying he did not remember the visit and one for denying it. After an FBI interrogation, he signed a written confession.
He will remain under house arrest until sentencing, set for Jan. 29.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz told journalists her office is “really gratified with the jury’s verdict.”
She said that while thousands of people helped authorities after the bombings, “Today a federal jury concluded that Robel Phillipos did just the opposite. He lied to agents when he could have helped. He concealed when he could have assisted.”
Defense lawyers noted that the jury deliberated for nearly a week. They said they would appeal.
They had contended that Phillipos was too intoxicated on marijuana to have a clear memory of his actions on April 18, 2013, and thus could not have deliberately lied. They said he confessed to going to the room only because FBI agents had told him he had done so.
Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense attorney for McDermott Will & Emery in Boston, said Phillipos’ lawyers were wise to try the marijuana defense to explain his actions and raise doubts. But he said that defense might not be appropriate for an older suspect.
“If it were anyone other than a college kid it might be a bridge too far,” Pearlstein said.
Pearlstein said he thinks Phillipos “almost surely” will get a lighter sentence than the maximum, perhaps as little as two or three years, considering his youth and lack of a prior criminal record.
The jury found Phillipos guilty of lying in statements he made about visiting the dorm room and of lying about the taking of the backpack. They also found lies were told in the context of a terrorism investigation, which could lead to a longer sentence. But they found Phillipos not guilty of making several other statements the government charged were false, including that he did not see anyone taking a backpack from the dorm room.
Speaking to journalists outside the courthouse, defense attorney Derege Demissie cited those favorable findings and noted the jury had deliberated since Oct. 21.
The jury “found him not guilty of very critical elements,” Demissie said. “By the length of deliberations you can guess that there were people who were divided. It could be a verdict of compromise,” he said.
During seven days of testimony at the trial, a series of FBI agents testified that Phillipos gave conflicting statements about the visit to Tsarnaev’s room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth before signing a statement that he did go.
Of the two friends who accompanied Phillipos, both Kazakh exchange students, Azamat Tazhayakov was convicted in July and Dias Kadyrbayev pleaded guilty in August of removing a backpack from the room while authorities were conducting a massive manhunt for the bomber.
Phillipos’ college and high school friends testified for the defense about his marijuana use. Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a family friend, described Phillipos as having been confused during his FBI interviews.
Tsarnaev, 21, is awaiting trial on charges that carry the death penalty. His brother, who prosecutors said helped carry out the bombing, died after a shootout with police late on the night of April 18, 2013.
Additional reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston. Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Eric Walsh, Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio