FEDERAL JUDGES have wide latitude in sentencing, and the conviction of Robel Phillipos on Tuesday for lying to the FBI is a good reminder why. A jury determined that the 21-year-old Cambridge resident, a friend of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, gave false statements during the bombing investigation. Phillipos had nothing to do with the attack itself but, in theory, he now faces up to 16 years in federal prison. It’s possible to imagine some scenarios in which a sentence that long might be an appropriate punishment for obstructing a terrorism investigation. But considering the particular circumstances of the Phillipos case, a sentence anywhere near the maximum would be unjust.
The jury verdict, reached after five days of deliberations, found that Phillipos had lied to the FBI by claiming he had not seen his friends, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, remove Tsarnaev’s backpack from a dorm room at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Authorities said that his lie delayed finding the backpack, which contained manipulated fireworks and other incriminating evidence. Phillipos’s defense rested on the curious argument that he had smoked so much marijuana he could not remember.
Phillipos’s actions were wrong, and if the guilty verdicts are upheld on appeal, some punishment would be appropriate. Still, US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock should take into account many mitigating factors that argue for a light sentence. Whether or not Phillipos’s lies technically meet the legal bar of materiality, they did not seriously set back the bombing investigation. He has no prior criminal record, nor was there any evidence he had malicious intent in deceiving the FBI. He was, by all appearances, a scared teenager who made a very bad mistake — giving false information to investigators in an apparent effort to minimize his friends’ role and his own.
It was appropriate for the US attorney to pursue charges, sending the message that lying in a terrorism investigation will not go unpunished. And it was appropriate for the jury to reject the marijuana defense, which did not hold up under scrutiny. Nevertheless, a sentence ought to be proportionate to the severity of the crime; some offenders, including Phillipos, deserve punishments that are relatively modest. The final judgment call lies with Woodlock. Given the raw memories of the bombing, many Bostonians may not consider Phillipos a sympathetic figure — but nonetheless, he should not spend the next decade of his life behind bars.