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Friend of accused Boston bomber found guilty of obstructing justice

By Scott Malone and Daniel Lovering

BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. jury on Monday found a friend of the accused Boston Marathon bomber guilty of obstructing the investigation into the deadly blasts by removing a backpack containing fireworks shells from the suspect's dorm room.

Kazakh exchange student Azamat Tazhayakov was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice for going to suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's room three days after the April 15, 2013, attack and removing the backpack containing the empty fireworks shells.

The jury in the federal court trial found Tazhayakov not guilty of similar charges involving a laptop computer.

Juror Daniel Antonino told reporters outside the courthouse the jurors had concluded the men had taken the laptop "because it was valuable, plain and simple," and not to influence the investigation.

Tazhayakov's mother broke down in tears when the verdict was read and left without speaking to reporters. Prosecutors charged that Tazhayakov, fellow Kazakh exchange student Dias Kadyrbayev and Robel Phillipos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, removed evidence from Tsarnaev's room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth after realizing their friend was a bombing suspect.

Tazhayakov could face up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction of justice count and up to five years on the conspiracy count. He will be sentenced on Oct. 16, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock said.

Defense attorneys said they planned to appeal the verdict, which they said reflected high emotions in a city still reeling from the attack that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

"Trying a case in the middle of a bombed city, it's very difficult to get a juror who's objective," said attorney Matthew Myers. "We understand what this town has been through."

Kadyrbayev is awaiting trial on the same charges later this year, while Phillipos faces the lesser charge of lying to investigators.

RAISING THE STAKES

During six days of testimony, jurors heard FBI agents testify that Tazhayakov told them he had been present when the items were removed and later watched as a garbage truck hauled away the backpack. Tazhayakov's attorneys had said their client never touched either item, contending Kadyrbayev did so and later dropped the backpack into a dumpster. None of the three men were charged with playing any role in the bombing.

One former federal prosecutor said Monday's verdict could raise the stakes for Kadyrbayev's attorneys. "It doesn't bode well for the next defendant," said Walter Prince, of the law firm Prince Lobel Tye, noting that Tazhayakov's decision not to testify in his own defense during the trial may prompt Kadyrbayev's lawyers to put him on the stand. "Otherwise the jury is left with just the FBI's version of what occurred," Prince said.

Kadyrbayev's lawyers had asked the judge to throw out his statements to the FBI after he was ordered out of his home by heavily armed agents, saying they were involuntary. Woodlock declined to rule on Kadyrbayev's request but rejected a similar argument from Tazhayakov's lawyers. Tsarnaev is awaiting trial on charges that carry the death penalty.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Susan Heavey, Jim Loney and Peter Cooney)

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