BOSTON (Reuters) - Three college friends of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges that they helped cover his tracks when the FBI was trying to find the people responsible for the April 15 attack.
All three are charged with going to Tsarnaev’s dorm room three days after the bombing and removing a laptop and a backpack containing empty fireworks shells after receiving a text message from him telling them to “go to my room and take what’s there,” according to court papers.
Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, both 19-year-old exchange students from Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty to the charge of obstruction of justice and could face 25 years in prison or deportation.
Kadyrbayev’s lawyer, Robert Stahl, said after the hearing that his client did not understand what Tsarnaev had done.
“There was no criminal intent to obstruct justice, to assist Dzhokhar in any way,” Stahl told reporters.
Robel Phillipos, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to investigators and could face up to 16 years in prison. Lawyers and supporters of Phillipos ushered him out of the courthouse and into a sports utility vehicle.
His lawyers said in a statement that Phillipos “had nothing to do whatsoever with the Boston Marathon bombing or destroying any evidence afterwards ... in the end, it will be clear that this prosecution should never have been brought in the first place.”
None of the men is charged with involvement in the bombing.
Prosecutors said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 20, and his older brother, Tamerlan, killed three people and injured 264 others with a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the crowded finish line of the marathon on April 15.
Federal prosecutors said they planned to present about 20 witnesses in a trial they estimated would take two weeks.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, who are being held in federal custody, were brought separately into the courtroom in shackles, wearing orange prison jumpsuits. Phillipos, who is under house arrest, was dressed in a suit and tie for his court appearance.
Tazhayakov’s lawyer, Nicholas Woolridge, said after the hearing that his client was being unfairly targeted because of the severity of the attack.
“You mention the word ‘terrorism,’ everybody gets scared, everybody is ready to burn somebody at the stake,” Woolridge said. “That’s basically what’s happening here.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was found hiding in a boat days after the blasts, left a handwritten message describing the attack as retribution for U.S. wars in Muslim countries, according to court documents.
The Tsarnaev brothers’ ethnic homeland of Chechnya, a mainly Muslim province that saw centuries of war and repression, has become a breeding ground for a form of militant Islam and may have inspired the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers.
Kadyrbayev’s lawyer, Stahl, said his client had not known Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to hold radical views and “had no way to know that he would be involved in something like this.”
On April 18 the FBI released pictures of the duo, then known only as suspects 1 and 2, standing near the finish line and asked the public for help in identifying them.
That night, after communicating with the younger Tsarnaev via text message, the three college friends entered Tsarnaev’s room and removed evidence, prosecutors said. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov later threw out the backpack, while Phillipos lied about his involvement, prosecutors said.
Later that night, the Tsarnaev brothers went on to shoot and kill a university police officer, prosecutors charge, before engaging in a gun battle with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, that ended when Dzhokhar fled, running over his 26-year-old brother in the process.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died of his injuries, while Dzhokhar evaded arrest for most of a day, leading to a lockdown of much of the greater Boston area. Dzhokhar, badly wounded, was found hiding in a boat in a backyard the evening of April 19.
He has been charged with crimes that carry the possibility of the death penalty.
Editing by Grant McCool