Federal prosecutors sent a quick, clear message in the prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Monday morning in filing a complaint in federal court listing only two specific charges, both carrying the possibility of the death penalty, according to legal observers.
The charges, use of a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death, center strictly on the Boston Marathon bombings and bypass for now the other crimes linked to him.
“I think it’s symbolic, and they want to cut right through the heart of what everybody’s focus is,” said former Middlesex district attorney Gerard T. Leone, now a defense lawyer with Nixon Peabody LLP. Leone was also a federal prosecutor who helped secure the conviction of attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid.
The legal observers said more charges could be filed against 19-year-old Tsarnaev in the form of follow-up federal indictments, for instance, once more is known about the plot and whether he had ties to any terrorist organizations.
Also, state officials from Middlesex County could bring their own charges of murder or mayhem for the shooting death of MIT police officer Sean Collier, the shooting of MBTA officer Richard Donohue Jr., and the gunfight and chaos that erupted in Watertown Friday morning.
But for now, prosecutors filed charges within a legally required time frame since Tsarnaev’s arrest Friday night: a pointed, clear, 10-page affidavit detailing his alleged role in the bombings.
“It lays out the evidence so that the public has an idea of what’s been going on in the past week. There’s been a lot of confusion going on,” said Stephen Huggard, a former federal prosecutor now with Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP.
The charges against Tsarnaev are capital crimes and could carry the death penalty if he is convicted. US Attorney General Eric Holder would make the determination of whether to seek the death penalty, with the input from the White House, though that determination could play into plea negotiations, the legal observers said.
The lawyers on both sides of the case have been involved in some of the highest-profile terrorism cases the state has seen in recent times.
Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty of the antiterrorism unit prosecuted Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man convicted in Dec. 2011 of conspiring to support Al Qaeda. He was sentenced in April 2012 to 17½ years in federal prison. Prosecutor William D. Weinreb was also assigned to the case.
And Tsarnaev’s lawyer, Miriam Conrad, the head public defender in Boston, also has a history of terrorism cases.
She represented Rezwan Ferdaus, the Ashland man who plotted to send a remote controlled plane laced with explosives into the Pentagon. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Conrad was part of the team that represented Reid, who was sentenced in 2002 to life in prison.
Public defenders William Fick and Timothy Watkins are also assigned to Tsarnaev’s case.
The public defenders asked that additional lawyers with expertise in capital crimes be appointed.
Tsarnaev is due in court for a hearing on May 30 to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to proceed with the case. But legal observers said prosecutors would probably seek a grand jury indictment by then, even if it is on the initial two charges only.
That would eliminate the need for the probable cause hearing.
In the long term, Leone said, federal prosecutors could seek an overarching, superceding indictment charging a conspiracy that could apply to the killing of Collier and the shooting of Donohue as well as the explosions and gunfire in Watertown. Or acting Middlesex District Attorney Michael Pelgro could preserve the state’s rights to prosecute the murder, creating two tracks.