Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left, and his brother Tamerlan, at the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013.
Since the capture and arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the college sophomore charged with the Boston Marathon bombing, I have thought about another young man who was charged with acts of terrorism. Twelve years ago, I was the public defender assigned to defend Richard Reid, more popularly known as the “shoe-bomber.” Three months after 9/11, Reid tried to detonate explosives packed into his sneakers while on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. When a flight attendant saw him struggling to light a fuse protruding from his shoe, she and others subdued him, restrained him with passengers’ belts and sedated him with drugs from the onboard medical kit. The flight was diverted to Boston, where Reid was taken into custody and charged in federal district court with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted homicide, among other crimes.
I had been practicing in Massachusetts as a public defender for eight years (in both state and federal courts) when Reid’s case was assigned to me. I happened to be the attorney “on call” that week in the Federal Defender Office, meaning that I was next on our internal list to receive new cases. I remember watching the news that weekend, hearing that a plane had landed at Logan Airport and that someone was charged with trying to blow it up; immediately I knew that federal prosecution was likely and that the case would come to me. Five months pregnant at the time, with a toddler at home and my husband in graduate school, I found the prospect daunting, to say the least.
As with most federal criminal cases, the government’s evidence against Reid was overwhelming and there was little room for us to maneuver. I wanted to go to trial and force the government to meet its burden, but Reid chose to plead guilty and accept the equivalent of a life sentence, rather than participate in a court system he considered illegitimate. Yet my experiences working on the case were quite positive. Although I had never defended someone charged with acts of terrorism, I had represented many people prosecuted for violent acts—from robbery and kidnapping to rape and murder—and I knew that the nuts and bolts of the advocacy would be the same. I also had the head of the office at the time, Owen Walker, as co-counsel as well as the support and encouragement of our other colleagues and staff.
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the intense media scrutiny. We were inundated with press calls—newspaper, radio and television reporters from around the country and abroad. The office was small—just seven or eight attorneys, a couple of investigators and support staff—and we were ill-equipped for that degree of attention. In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote my own press releases and strategized in the hallways over which journalists to give interviews to, what to say to them, and how to try to mute the professional communications machine of the US attorney’s office prosecuting the case.
As for my personal interactions with Richard, they were always cordial and respectful. Although he would not shake my hand, explaining that it wasn’t allowed under the laws of Islam, he listened to the information that I shared, considered it carefully and responded with his own thoughts and questions. Often Owen and I would visit him together, and Richard treated us both as professionals. As with the majority of my clients over the past twenty years of practice, I grew to feel warmly toward him and to enjoy his company.
I learned that Richard, who was 28 when we met, had been born in England to a soft-spoken librarian and an absentee father whose own father was Jamaican. As a child, he had felt quite lost when his mother remarried and had another son; he never quite fit in at school or with his blended family, and by 17 he was sentenced to a year in a juvenile facility for mugging an elderly person. He drifted through his early 20s, served more jail time for theft and began attending a mosque in London, where his ideology became more extreme and anti-American.