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Jury selection begins for accused Boston Marathon bomber's friend

Robel Phillipos, a college friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, arrives at federal court before a hearing in Boston on May 15, 2014.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

BOSTON -- Jury selection has begun in the trial of a friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who is accused of lying to authorities investigating the bombing.

Robel Phillipos is charged in federal court with making false statements when he was questioned about his movements on April 18, 2013, three days after the bombing and hours after the FBI released photos of Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as suspects in the attack.

Authorities say the brothers placed two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the race, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

Tsarnaev, now 21, has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges. He could face the death penalty if convicted. His trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 5, 2015.

Prosecutors allege that Phillipos, who was 19 at the time, lied about being in Tsarnaev's dorm room while two other friends -- Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev -- removed a laptop and a backpack containing fireworks that had been emptied of their explosive powder.

Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev both were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Phillipos has been portrayed by his lawyers as a young man who had no intention of misleading investigators and knew nothing about the removal of Tsarnaev's backpack by Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov.

"This case is about a frightened and confused 19-year-old who was subjected to intense questioning and interrogation, without the benefit of counsel, and in the context of one of the worst attacks against the nation," attorneys Derege Demissie and Susan Church wrote in court documents last year seeking to have him released from jail while awaiting trial.

Phillipos was a classmate of Tsarnaev's from high school and also attended the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth with him, as well as Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov. His lawyers said he had taken a leave of absence and hadn't spoken to Tsarnaev or the other men for more than two months at the time of the bombings. He was invited to attend a seminar on campus on April 18, the night items were taken from Tsarnaev's dorm room, his lawyers said.

Gerry Leone, a former state and federal prosecutor, said it will be important for both prosecutors and the defense team to put the statements Phillipos made in context.

"The government is going to say there was an intention to lie and harm the investigation in the context of the marathon bombing," Leone said. "The defense has to say when he was questioned by the government -- something that's never happened to this young college student before -- he wasn't trying to do any harm or ill-will toward anybody. He was frightened, he was intimidated, he may not have given the absolute right answers to questions, but that wasn't because he intended to engage in any kind of cover-up."