A federal judge has put off the sentencing of two friends of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, saying Thursday that their cases could be affected by a legal question pending before the country’s highest court.
The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case that could define what can be considered “tangible” evidence in an obstruction of justice case, and that definition could influence the cases of Tsarnaev’s two friends, Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev.
Tazhayakov was found guilty in July and Kadyrbayev later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges for removing Tsarnaev’s backpack from his dorm room and throwing it in a dumpster after Tsarnaev was identified as one of the suspected bombers.
At issue is whether discarding the backpack fits the type of obstruction of justice laws that prosecutors applied in their indictments of Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev.
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock said in a two-page decision Thursday that “it is conceivable” that the Supreme Court’s definition of what can be considered “tangible” evidence could challenge the indictments of Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev.
The judge said in a two-page decision issued Thursday that it would be wise to postpone the sentencing — which had been scheduled for next week — “at least until the Supreme Court has resolved [the case] and the parties have had an adequate opportunity to consider the implications of that resolution.”
The case before the Supreme Court — known as the Yates case — involves a Florida fisherman who was charged with a certain provision of obstruction of justice laws for throwing undersize fish back into the Gulf of Mexico after he had been cited by a wildlife officer.
The officer had told the fisherman, John Yates, to set the fish aside and return them to port.
Federal prosecutors applied a certain provision of obstruction of justice laws, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, that called for a punishment of up to 20 years in prison for the destruction of “any record, document or tangible object” to obstruct an investigation.
Yates was ultimately sentenced to 30 days in prison, though prosecutors had asked that he serve 3 years.
The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether prosecutors should have used the provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in charging Yates, when other charges — with less severe punishment — were at their disposal.
The Sarbanes-Oxley provisions stemmed from the Enron bankruptcy scandal and criminalized the destruction of paper documents, computer records, or other “tangible” records.
Yates’ attorneys argued that there are no paper documents or similar “tangible” documents related to his case. And lawyers for Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev argue that there are no paper documents or computer records in their cases.
Tsarnaev’s backpack contained a thumb drive, but Tazhayakov’s lawyers successfully argued during his trial that there was no evidence that Tazhayakov knew the backpack contained the thumb drive. The jury also acquitted Tazhayakov of charges of obstruction of justice for taking Tsarnaev’s computer from his dorm room.
Kadyrbayev pleaded guilty under an agreement that he would serve seven years in prison, but Woodlock said Thursday that the outcome of the Yates case could influence whether he would accept the plea deal.
The judge had ordered government prosecutors to address the Yates decision in an earlier court filing in September, but he said his decision Thursday to postpone the sentencing was based on his review of the “very vigorous argument” before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Nicholas Wooldridge, a lawyer for Tazhayakov, welcomed Woodlock’s decision.
“I think the judge made the right call, the sentencing should be adjourned before there’s any final determination as to what the correct judgment is on this case,” he said.
Robert Stahl, an attorney for Kadyrbayev, agreed.
“The court made the prudent and wise decision to hold off on sentencing until the Supreme Court decides the Yates decision since that decision affects the statute the government has charged in this case,” he said.
“The government has chosen [to use] this statute, and so what the Supreme Court does could potentially impact the case here.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.