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November 27, 2014

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Friend is first convicted in Boston Marathon probe

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

This courtroom sketch signed by artist Jane Flavell Collins shows defendants Dias Kadyrbayev, left, and Azamat Tazhayakov appearing in front of Federal Magistrate Marianne Bowler at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Mass., Wednesday, May 1, 2013. The two college friends of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and another man, were arrested and charged with removing a backpack containing hollowed-out fireworks from Tsarnaev’s dorm room.

BOSTON — The conviction of a friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for impeding the investigation into the bombings has his lawyers wondering if anyone else who faces charges connected to the 2013 attack stands a chance of acquittal.

A federal jury on Monday found Azamat Tazhayakov guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for trying to protect Tsarnaev by agreeing with another friend to get rid of a backpack and disable fireworks they took from his dorm room.

Tazhayakov's lawyers told the jury that it was the other friend, Dias Kadyrbayev, who took the backpack and later threw it away. Prosecutors even acknowledged that Kadyrbayev was the one who actually placed the backpack in the trash. But the jury still convicted Tazhayakov of both charges.

One of Tazhayakov's lawyers called the verdict "somewhat surprising," while another predicted it does not bode well for three other men charged with obstruction of justice or lying to investigators in connection with Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police.

"If Azamat had a difficult time here, everybody else is going to have a worse time because Azamat had the best facts," said attorney Nicholas Wooldridge.

Matthew Myers, another of Tazhayakov's attorneys, said it was difficult to try a case "in this culture," a reference to the emotional impact the bombings had on Boston and surrounding communities. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when twin bombs exploded near the finish line in April 2013. At least 16 people lost limbs in the blasts.

"We understand what this town has been through ... it's hard to overcome that bias," Myers said.

Tazhayakov faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence for obstruction and a five-year maximum for conspiracy at his sentencing, which was scheduled for Oct. 16.

Tsarnaev has asked that his trial be moved out of state, to Washington, D.C., because of the intense media coverage and widespread impact of the bombings on Massachusetts residents. A judge has not yet ruled on the request.

Four other men face trials in connection with the bombings.

Kadyrbayev will be tried in September on charges identical to those brought against Tazhayakov. A third friend, Robel Phillipos, who is charged with lying to investigators about being in the dorm room with Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov the night the items were taken, is to have a separate trial in September.

A friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is to be tried next year. Khairulluzon Matanov is accused of lying to investigators about the extent of his friendship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the contact he had with both brothers in the days following the bombings.

The guilty verdicts for 20-year-old Tazhayakov came three years after he arrived in the U.S. from his native Kazakhstan, hoping to get an engineering degree at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

During his trial, FBI agents testified that Tazhayakov told them he and Kadyrbayev decided to take the backpack, fireworks and Tsarnaev's computer hours after Kadyrbayev received a text message from Tsarnaev that said he could go to his dorm room and "take what's there." The items were removed after the FBI released photos and video of the Tsarnaev brothers and identified them as suspects in the bombings.

The backpack and fireworks later were recovered in a New Bedford landfill. Prosecutors said the explosive powder missing from the fireworks can be used to make bombs.

Myers told the jury his client was a naive college kid who was prosecuted because he was a "friend of the bomber."

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police several days after the bombings. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped but was soon found, wounded and hiding in a boat dry-docked in a backyard in suburban Watertown.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in November. He faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.

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