Accused Boston Bomber Friend Convicted of Lying to Investigators

Robel Phillipos Faces Up To 16 Years Behind Bars For Crime

Wall Street Journal/October 28, 2014

By Jon Kamp

Boston -- A friend of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted Tuesday of lying to investigators about visiting the alleged attacker’s dorm room three days after the 2013 bombing, where other friends removed evidence.

A jury found that Robel Phillipos, 21 years old, lied during questioning by federal authorities about whether he went to Mr. Tsarnaev’s room at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth with two others who took a backpack containing hollowed-out fireworks.

Prosecutors said Mr. Phillipos changed his story during different interviews, and later admitted in a signed confession that he was in the dorm room.

An attorney for Mr. Phillipos said at trial that the college student was “high out of his mind” on marijuana and couldn’t remember what happened.

His defense included a surprise witness—former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis —who has long known Mr. Phillipos’s family and testified that the defendant sounded confused during a conversation five days after the April 15, 2013, marathon attacks that left three dead and more than 260 injured.

“This case is about a person who lied, not a person who didn’t remember,” prosecutor Stephanie Siegmann said during closing arguments.

Mr. Phillipos’s attorney, Derege Demissie, told jurors that his client’s confession was coerced and unreliable. Mr. Phillipos, who is from Cambridge, Mass., and went to high school and college with Mr. Tsarnaev, didn’t testify.

Authorities believe Mr. Tsarnaev, also 21, acted alongside his older brother Tamerlan, who died days later amid a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the only one charged with carrying out the bombings. He has pleaded not guilty and could face the death penalty if convicted. He is set for trial in early January.

Mr. Phillipos faces up to 16 years in prison, and is set to be sentenced on Jan. 29. He was released to home confinement and didn’t speak to reporters on Tuesday as his attorneys led him to a car outside Boston’s federal courthouse.

The jurors deliberated for at least 34 hours during six days. They ultimately decided Mr. Phillipos was guilty of making five false statements related to going to the dorm room and knowing that friends took the backpack, which was found in a landfill.

The attack was carried out with two homemade bombs fashioned from pressure cookers, shrapnel and explosive powder and placed in two black backpacks near the finish line, officials have said. The backpack in the dorm room contained fireworks that had been emptied of low-explosive powder.

The panel found Mr. Phillipos not guilty of lying in four other statements that related to seeing the backpack or fireworks while in the dorm room or speaking with the other friends about discarding the backpack. The statements were grouped in two separate counts.

Mr. Phillipos’ attorneys said they’re planning to appeal based on how the jury split on these questions. “We believe there are serious legal issues relative to the materiality of just being there,” Mr. Demissie said.

Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said Mr. Phillipos chose the wrong path at a time when “thousands of ordinary citizens” were helping law enforcement after the marathon attack. “He lied to agents when he could have helped,” she said at a news conference. “He concealed when he could have assisted.”

Authorities charged four people, including Mr. Phillipos, for actions allegedly taken after the bombing. Prosecutors said Mr. Phillipos and two other men—all students at the time at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth—went to Mr. Tsarnaev’s room shortly after the Federal Bureau of Investigation released Mr. Tsarnaev’s picture publicly. The two other friends, both Kazakh nationals, took the backpack, authorities said.

A jury convicted one of those men, Azamat Tazhayakov, of obstruction of justice in July. The other, Dias Kadyrbayev, pleaded guilty a month later. Both men are awaiting sentencing.

Separately, prosecutors have charged a local taxi driver from Kyrgyzstan with misleading investigators and seeking to destroy evidence about how well he knew the Tsarnaevs. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is set for next year.

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