Friday, December 26, 2014
First, do no harm.
The death penalty trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is scheduled to begin in federal court in Boston on Monday, January 5, 2015. This is the so-called Boston Marathon Bomber case (BMB). I say “is scheduled to begin” because the defense has requested (1) a change of venue due to prejudicial pretrial publicity and (2) a continuance of the trial date until next September to review voluminous discovery that the government recently disclosed to the defense. You can reasonably expect both motions will be denied because the jury summons have already been sent out.
Both motions were filed to protect the record should Tsarnaev be convicted and appeal. For example, if he were convicted and his lawyers had not filed these motions, he would be barred from claiming on appeal that he was denied a fair trial due to prejudicial pretrial publicity and being forced to trial in January when his lawyers were not prepared.
Although both motions were previously raised and denied in September, it’s not unusual for them to be refiled because community prejudice toward a defendant can change over time as can the necessity for a continuance when discovery is provided to the defense at the last minute.
The Boston Globe describes the defense motion for a continuance,
Just last week, prosecutors turned over a witness list with more than 730 names, and identified 1,238 exhibits and 413 digital files that could be used as evidence, the defense lawyers complained. The government provided a trove of other digital records, the lawyers said.
“To commence trial as scheduled on Jan. 5 would threaten both the fairness and finality of the proceedings,” the defense team argued. They have asked that the case be postponed until September.
“It [is] impossible for the defense to digest this information, much less attempt to pursue investigative leads it may suggest, in time to make effective use of it at trial.”
The Boston Herald reports the government’s response,
Prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing case called accused terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s renewed push for a delay in the Jan. 5 trial just more complaints from a defendant who faces the death penalty.
In a Christmas Eve filing, federal prosecutors said a long list of law enforcement investigators ready to take the stand is not unexpected.
“Tsarnaev can hardly have been surprised by a witness list containing a large number of evidence-handling witnesses,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston wrote in a motion fighting any delay.
“In responding to Tsarnaev’s continuing requests for information, the vast bulk of which is not required by the rules of discovery, the government has gone over and above anything the law requires,” prosecutors added. “Tsarnaev continues to complain about the volume of case-related information provided by the government even as he demands more and more of it.
Welcome to trial by ambush. This is how they do you in federal court. A defense lawyer can’t survive there unless he or she can read extremely fast and recall everything while going without sleep for days. The pressure to be perfect is enormous because any mistake, no matter how minor, could be the difference between the client living or dying.
First, do no harm.
The defense also filed an extremely unusual motion worth noting and discussing. They titled it, Motion to Protect Defendant from Prejudicial Effects of “Supporters” Demonstrations at Courthouse. I have never seen or heard of a motion like this. Most defendants in death penalty cases don’t have many supporters. They come and go quietly.
The defense team apparently is concerned about the following incident and they do not want prospective jurors exposed to similar incidents.
Shortly before the beginning of the final pretrial conference in his case on December 18, 2014, in the immediate vicinity of the courthouse, a group of demonstrators claiming to be “supporters” of the defendant were involved in a confrontation with members of the public, including a man who was severely injured by a bomb at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The demonstrators held signs and shouted statements to the effect, among other things, that the bombing and the survivors’ injuries were staged. Two news reports described the scene as follows:
His supporters, who claim Tsarnaev was set up and is actually innocent, massed outside the court building armed with provocative signs. Two women caught the eye of marathon bombing survivor Marc Fucarile, who limped by with a cane needed after he lost his right leg in the carnage. “That’s trickery?” Fucarile fumed as he lifted his prosthetic leg to show the damage Tsarnaev is accused of doing to score of innocents.
I think the word ‘aghast’ probably captures the defense reaction.
God only knows how many prospective jurors heard about this incident or read about it on social media. Judge O’Toole, to whom this case is preassigned, and counsel are going to have to voir dire (question) prospective jurors about it without actually mentioning it, just in case they do not already know about it. Better not to tell them about it, if they don’t already know. Jurors should be questioned individually out of the presence of other prospective jurors. That way their answers will not poison others.
Defense counsel expressed their concern as follows:
The continuing presence in the immediate vicinity of the courthouse entranceways of demonstrators–including those who gather to challenge as fabricated the injuries suffered by the survivors as they attempt to attend the proceedings–poses a grave threat to the fairness of the defendant’s trial. Beginning on January 5, prospective jurors and witnesses will be required to enter the courthouse through the same entranceways. Survivors, jurors, witnesses, and members of the public must be able to attend court without being assaulted by inflammatory accusations from any source. If they cannot,the fairness of the defendant’s trial is likely to be gravely harmed, in part because of the natural but false inference that the defendant and his counsel agree with the outrageous conspiracy theories that are being so vociferously advanced by demonstrators claiming to be the defendant’s “supporters.”
This motion is a very clear indication that the defense trial strategy will not involve presenting a conspiracy theory.
First, do no harm.
A life is at stake.
DISCLOSURE: I was a felony criminal defense lawyer for 30 years specializing in death-penalty defense, forensics and freeing the innocent from wrongful convictions. I also taught Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Wrongful Convictions and Trial Advocacy in law school. I have known Judy Clarke for close to 20 years dating back to when we were members of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).