On Thursday a Federal Grand Jury in the District of Massachusetts charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with, as the saying goes, everything but the kitchen sink. The 30-count indictment runs to 74 pages, encompassing 154 numbered paragraphs in the first 64 of them, plus auxiliary matters in the remainder.
After some preliminaries describing general matters ranging from the Boston marathon as an event to the confession Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly left on the side of the boat where he was captured (paragraphs 1-10, pp. 1-4), the first count is stated as “Conspiracy to Use a Weapon of Mass Destruction Resulting in Death” (pg. 5), as detailed in paragraphs 11 through 40 (pp. 5-12).
Notwithstanding the assertion of conspiracy (meaning with his brother Tamerlan) to use “a” weapon of mass destruction, the paragraphs in question cite several: the two bombs that exploded at the marathon on April 15, resulting in three deaths; four IEDs used against officers during the shoot-out of April 18, resulting in no deaths; and a Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic pistol (considered to have been fired by both brothers), used against those officers and against MIT Officer Sean Collier earlier in the evening, resulting in his death, and brandished against a car-jacking victim (here called D.M) at an intermediate time.
I am not a lawyer, but let me interject here that it seems strange to call a pistol a “weapon of mass destruction.” And it seems a stretch to make an ongoing conspiracy out of the events both of April 15 and of April 19. Did they know on the first date that they were going to get into a confrontation on the second?
In addition, besides such points as getting bomb-making instructions from an on-line magazine published by al-Qaeda, the elements of the conspiracy are said to include (paragraph 17) downloading an article about jihad from “an extremist web forum,” which article “glorifies martyrdom in the service of violent jihad.” Apart from the rhetorical values implicit in this characterization, is reading about jihad equivalent to engaging in it? Or to put it differently, is the right to read radical literature only available to non-Muslims?
And here is my favorite paragraph in the entire document. Followers of this case will remember that one officer was injured by friendly fire during the shoot-out. Well, here he is (paragraph 39)
In the course of making his escape in the Mercedes, DZHOKHAR A. TSARNAEV also caused Richard Donohue, a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer, to sustain serious bodily injury.
In short, if someone is shooting at you and hits someone else by mistake, it’s your fault.
Counts 2 through 15 treat the April 15 explosions of the two bombs (Dzhokhar is considered responsible for both) as committing 14 different crimes, whose differences (such as between “firearm” and “weapon of mass destruction”) you can read yourself between pages 13 through 39. Then counts 16, 17, and 18 are different crimes associated with allegedly killing Collier. Then 19 through 22 concern the alleged car-jacking, and 23 through 30 with the confrontation with police (some of which also blame the April 19 area-wide lockdown on the brothers).
It is perhaps curious that there is no count of kidnapping, a federal crime, although the concept is mentioned in connection with the alleged car-jacking.
It can be said that the rhetoric of the document spares nothing in making it clear that the alleged crimes were heinous. For example, the phrase “a dense crowd of Marathon spectators that included men, women, and children” is used twice to describe the location of the bombs.
Now I am inclined to view this document, not as a serious statement of what the government intends to prove at trial, but as a combination of a negotiating position and of a rhetorical device designed to silence dissident discussions of this case.
Consider the alleged murder of the MIT Officer. To prove it the government would certainly have to demonstrate forensically that the bullet or bullets that killed him came from the gun that leaks have told us was recovered from the scene of the shoot-out with city police, and demonstrate from chain of custody that the weapon indeed had been in the possession of the brothers. I say that because Russ Baker’s article a month ago discredited everything else that has been claimed about the alleged incident. (For instance, why would the brothers go to the MIT campus, of all places, to steal a weapon?) My guess is that the government would just as soon not have to prove this one.
There are also problems with the government’s case on the bombing incident itself, as I have previously discussed (summary here). And the credibility of the Boston FBI office, which has had the responsibility for the investigation, has not been helped by its killing of a Chechen immigrant in Florida in late May in suspicious circumstances.
No, I think the indictment is a rhetorical onslaught designed to silence the “conspiracy theorists,” undercut the New England resentment of the federal government taking over a case so that it can secure a death penalty where state law does not sanction it, and stir up more Islamophobia in the Boston area, all to improve the government’s position in negotiations with Tsarnaev’s defense team.