Justice for Dzokhar Tsarnaev — and the Rest of Us

Judge, Jury and Even Defense Will Help Us Get Answers

By Laura Rozen

Published April 29, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
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‘Mazel Tov,” my father wrote in an email to me. “May his client lose and receive a death sentence.”

Dzokhar Tsarnaev
getty images
Dzokhar Tsarnaev

The paternal congratulations and sentiment were in response to my telling him that an old friend working as a federal defense attorney in Boston had been appointed by the judge to represent Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The 19-year-old naturalized American of Chechen descent was charged with setting off two makeshift bombs April 15 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in a police shootout that killed his 26-year-old brother and accused co-conspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspect was formally charged on April 22 — in his Beth Israel Deaconess hospital bed — on two federal terrorism counts that could carry the death penalty. Among those killed at the race was Lu Lingzi, a 23 year old graduate student from China who had been running it; Krystle Campbell from Medford who had been cheering on a friend; and Martin Richard, an 8-year-old boy whose sister and mother were also severely injured in the blasts.

Dzhokhar had been about the same age when he arrived in Cambridge, Mass., with his parents in 2002 from Dagestan, joined the next year by his older brother and sisters. By many accounts, he was a popular and well-adjusted Cambridge teenager, a former captain of his high school wrestling team who had gone on to college at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. .

Dzhokhar had by most accounts been welcomed and able to flourish in quirky, diverse, open-minded Cambridge, even as the rest of his family fell apart as his mother and brother grew more religious, and his parents separated and returned to Dagestan, Russia last year. It was even harder to fathom his actions or motivations against a city that had been so generous to him.

Early accounts suggested he might have been pulled into the plot by loyalty to his angry and alienated older brother Tamerlan, a former accomplished boxer who had dropped out of community college and been charged with hitting a girlfriend. But video surveillance at the Marathon described in the 10-page federal complaint observed Dzhokhar calmly checking his phone as the first bomb, believed placed by his brother, exploded on Boston’s Boylston street, before placing his own and brusquely walking away.

Ten years before Dzhokar arrived in Boston, William Fick, my friend who was now going to defend the accused bomber, was arriving in Moscow. A Yale graduate, Bill was among a group of Russian-speaking friends and recent college graduates who moved to Russia in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to witness the end of the Cold War first hand. He worked at a USAID-funded NGO helping bring Internet technology to civil society groups.

It was a time when Moscow was in a period of dizzying, sometimes frightening transition from communism to capitalism, authoritarian order to Wild West chaos, while moving to brutally suppress growing separatist insurgencies in the south, including in Chechnya, as the former Soviet empire cracked apart.

Bill went on to Yale law school, a federal clerkship, and worked in the private sector before becoming a federal public defender in Boston.

On the day of the Marathon bombing attack, he and his family were out of town on vacation.

One week later, Fick was at Tsarnaev’s bedside as U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler asked the teen, recovering from gunshot wounds, if he understood the charges against him and that he could face the death penalty.

Debates had swirled in Washington the weekend before about whether Dzhokhar should be held as an enemy combatant, as South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham proposed, to face a military tribunal instead of a terrorism charges in federal civilian court. (This despite the fact that Dzhokhar is a US citizen, having been granted citizenship in a ceremony at Cambridge city hall on September 11, 2012.) The transcript showed Judge Browler decisively put such grandstanding to rest.

“Do you understand everything I have said about the right to remain silent?” Bowler asked.

“Defendant nods affirmatively,” the transcript notes.

“You have the right to an attorney at this initial appearance, during any questioning, at all proceedings at court,” Bowler said. “Can you afford a lawyer?”

“No,” the defendant said — the only word Tsarnaev is recorded as saying in the appearance.

“Let the record reflect that the defendant has said ‘No,’” Bowler continued. “I have provisionally appointed Mr. Fick to represent you in this matter.”

“Ordinarily I would be asking the bail question,” the judge said, presumably looking around the hospital room to indicate the unlikeliness of the defendant asking for bail.

“I am going to defer that question at this time, your Honor, and agree to detention without prejudice,” Fick responds.

“The government has no objection to the defendant having access to his counsel,” US prosecutor Weinreb says.

The people doing their jobs soberly and methodically in Tsarnaev’s hospital room that day live and work in the city that experienced the trauma of his actions firsthand. They will help bring justice and accountability to those responsible for killing, maiming and endangering their neighbors, children, students, and co-workers.

They might also eventually provide some answers for the rest of us. It’s a system that makes me very proud for our country, despite the painful questions that remain about why this happened.

Laura Rozen writes the Back Channel column for Al-Monitor. She previously served as a foreign policy reporter for the magazine Foreign Policy and for the websites Politico and Yahoo! News. You can follow her on Twitter at @lrozen


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