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Marathon bombing trial’s enduring value

A courtroom sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during the jury selection process in January.
A courtroom sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during the jury selection process in January.Jane Flavell Collins via REUTERS/file

The trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, where closing arguments are scheduled to begin on Monday after 16 days of testimony and 95 witnesses, has already been a success. The community learned important new details of the bombing, and drew a step nearer to putting the traumatic week of the bombing and Watertown manhunt in the rearview mirror. Just as important, by showing the world that terror suspects can get a fair trial, the proceedings have helped restore some global respect for American justice — and vindicated the Obama administration’s decision to keep him within the conventional justice system from the beginning.

It’s easy to forget that just after Tsarnaev’s arrest, the administration came under criticism for failing to ship Tsarnaev off to military detention. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, along with colleagues John McCain and Lindsey Graham, called for the administration to take Tsarnaev into military custody, rather than charge the suspected bomber in civilian courts. The legal arguments against the senators’ position have been thoroughly aired already, but the advantages of civilian trials are not solely procedural. Should another domestic terror attack like the Marathon bombing strike the United States, the Tsarnaev trial should stand as an example of why keeping terror suspects in the normal justice system is preferable for the communities they target, too.


Holding the trial in public has helped answer some of the lingering questions about the case, such as how the brothers were radicalized with online material, and where they got the gun used to kill MIT police officer Sean Collier. Those revelations will help inform public discussion about how to prevent guns from ending up in the hands of terrorists, and raise awareness of the dangers posed by online jihadism. Conversely, no harm has come to national security from treating Tsarnaev, who is a US citizen, as a conventional defendant. Reading him his Miranda rights, a step bemoaned by the senators, did not hamper the case. On the contrary, the United States avoided the needless, self-inflicted black eye that would have come had authorities skirted established protections for criminal defendants. And the jury’s verdict, whatever it may be, will have a credibility that would have been lacking had Tsarnaev been subject to military detention and interrogation first.

The fixation on putting domestic terrorism suspects into military custody reflects a longstanding obsession of McCain and Graham, and as long as they continue to beat that drum, civilian trials like Tsarnaev’s will need defending. The good that has come from holding an open, fair, and untainted trial in the United States, near the scene of the crime, cannot be underestimated. It’s unfortunate that the senators tried to derail this healthy constitutional process, but hopefully the Tsarnaev trial will serve as a reminder of its value.