While Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings and the murder of MIT Police officer Sean Collier, was leaning into Collier’s police cruiser at around 10:30 p.m. on April 18, 2013, MIT graduate student Nathan Harman rode his bicycle past.
Tsarnaev “snapped up, stood up, and turned around — he looked startled,” Harman said during his testimony in court on March 11.
“I just didn’t think anything of it and rode off,” Harman testified, saying that he thought Tsarnaev was probably just an MIT student. Harman pointed Tsarnaev out as the person he’d seen, and specified that “I only saw one person.” (Tsarnaev’s defense has argued that his brother was the one who killed Collier.)
“It didn’t raise any red flags because the MIT Police have a good relationship with the MIT community,” Harman said in an interview with The Tech.
Harman’s interest was piqued the next day when he saw a news article about the murder. “Once I knew it was on that corner, at around that time, then the memory sparked,” Harman told The Tech. “I had seen this person leaning into the car,” he said.
Having made the connection, Harman realized what an unlikely position he was in and conveyed his shock to his friends.
A few days after the shooting, MIT’s police department sent out an email asking for anyone who may have information to come forward. Harman left a message, and MIT Police got back to him quickly — the fact that he had mentioned riding his bike past the scene had caught their attention.
Security footage from a camera on top of the Green Building was played during Harman’s testimony. It showed a bicyclist riding past the car as the murder happened, and Harman realized that investigators had known he existed — “they were waiting for me to come forward,” he told The Tech.
Harman spoke to MIT Police the following week and then spoke to the Massachusetts grand jury briefly in the summer. The only other witnesses present were the people in the Koch Institute who called the police when they heard gunshots.
Before the grand jury, Harman pointed out where he rode his bike on a map of MIT and told his story.
“Then, I heard nothing for a year,” Harman said to The Tech.
In late 2014, as the trial neared, Harman said he got a call from the FBI. He met with “two members from the FBI that were assigned to this case, and then [William] Weinreb,” one of the federal prosecutors. They confirmed that Harman was willing to testify, showed him the evidence they’d ask him about, and reviewed questions.
“They told me to avoid coverage of the trial itself,” Harman recalled, and only asked questions about his experience. During the actual testimony, the material the prosecution covered was exactly what they told him beforehand, Harman said. They had told him: “‘We’re only here asking [for] your story.’”
The prosecution also told Harman that the defense may contact him, and told him that if he were cross-examined, he should “slow down, say more than a yes or no, make sure [to] tell the truth.” Harman was neither contacted nor cross-examined, which was a “relief,” he said.
In fact, aside from the prosecution, Harman had little interaction with anyone regarding the events of that night — few people knew. That Harman would be called to testify is considered one of the best-kept secrets of the trial, as most other information was leaked beforehand.
Harman, who is pursuing a PhD in math, said he had lived his life normally and had “no idea” how the prosecution kept his name under wraps.
“Someone who knew me told me a few days in advance that I’d been mentioned” during a discussion of evidence, Harman told The Tech. “Other than that, I wasn’t mentioned until I was called in.”
On the day of the trial, Harman said he was “really nervous,” pacing outside the courtroom. Happily, there were no surprises.
Closing statements for the first phase of the trial are expected next Monday. The jury will have to decide whether Tsarnaev is guilty of 30 different charges. If he is convicted, the trial will move onto the penalty phase.
Since Harman’s testimony, he said he has been constantly contacted online by both press and acquaintances, but he tends to ignore questions unless they are asked in person.
“I don’t want to deal with that,” he told The Tech, his voice strained.