Many Question Lack Of Plea Deal In Boston Bombing Case | KERA News

Many Question Lack Of Plea Deal In Boston Bombing Case

Mar 5, 2015
Originally published on March 5, 2015 5:55 pm

The dramatic admission of guilt by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defense team in its opening statement Wednesday has generated questions about the trial now underway. Many are wondering why the government wouldn't accept a plea deal in exchange for life in prison, or why Tsarnaev wouldn't want to plead guilty to avoid graphic and disturbing testimony that he's not even contesting.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Another day of dramatic and difficult testimony in the trial of admitted Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As we're about to hear from NPR's Tovia Smith, survivors offered disturbing accounts of their suffering, as did first responders and police. She also reports that Tsarnaev's admission of guilt just yesterday has left many wondering why this case is going to trial at all.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: For the second day, jurors sat through excruciatingly graphic and grueling testimony. A father recalled losing his eight-year-old son. A police officer described trying to save a victim as her body was quivering and her eyes were rolling in her head. She choked up as she recalled getting her into an ambulance and then being told, when the woman died, to take her out to make room for others. Another amputee wept as she recalled seeing her foot just barely dangling from her leg.

Defense attorneys sat silent, not asking a single question on cross-examination. They've already made it clear it was him. We're not going to try and sidestep his responsibility, they said, and they've hinted in the past how frustrated they are that the government won't offer a deal of life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea.

BRAD BAILEY: One wonders, OK, why wouldn't you, with now a 21-year-old, exchange the death penalty for life in prison without any possibility of parole in a supermax facility?

SMITH: Former prosecutor, Brad Bailey, says he believes the government felt compelled to take a hard line on what is the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. With the trial underway, the U.S. attorney declined to comment, but another former federal prosecutor, Gerry Leone, says it makes sense that the government would not agree to a deal.

GERRY LEONE: If you look at the grave risk of death to others, the heinous, cruel, depraved manner in which the defendant carried out the act, the vulnerability of the victims - you look at all of those aggravating circumstances, you know, reasonable minds can differ over the death penalty, but reasonable minds are not going to cause the Department of Justice to take it off the table.

SMITH: The decision to seek the death penalty is ultimately U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's to make. But former federal judge, Nancy Gertner, says resistance is likely coming from closer to home.

NANCY GERTNER: It is perplexing to me. Attorney General Holder has called for a moratorium on the death penalty in two states, so perhaps it's reasonable to infer then that the obstacle here is the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts.

SMITH: By law, prosecutors are required to consider what victims want in a case like this. Many have told prosecutors here they want the closure a trial would offer. One survivor who testified posted on Facebook that being in court and looking at Tsarnaev, quote, "right in the face" made her not afraid anymore. As she put it, she realized that sitting across from him was somehow the crazy kind of step forward that she needed all along. A relative of another survivor expressed similar sentiment that he was able to see the trial underway in Boston where the attack took place.

UNIDENTIFIED BOSTON MAN: Well, it's right where it belongs, that's all. It's right where it should be, that's all.

SMITH: Others, however, were less sanguine. One woman, who lost a leg in the attack, says she would have rather seen a plea deal so there'd be no need for trial. As she put it, each time a witness relives that day, I relive my own horrific experience. Eventually, says former prosecutor Bailey, the defense may decide it wants to minimize how much disturbing testimony the jury hears and may plead guilty even without a deal on sentencing.

BAILEY: At some point, somebody on the defense team could say, enough of this. We're risking antagonizing this jury. And they can say, what are we doing here? Why are you wasting our time on this guilt thing?

SMITH: On the other hand, Bailey says, pleading guilty now would also compromise Tsarnaev's ability to appeal, and that's something his attorneys would definitely not want to do. So his trial may well just keep going for months. Tovia Smith, NPR News at the federal courthouse in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.