Tsarnaev is charged with using a weapon of mass destruction and destruction of property. And, Tsarnaev’s lawyers will be fighting for his life, as he may face the death penalty. The practice of defending terror suspects is now a concrete part of the legal culture, with some lawyers making it a specialty.
Acts of terror on U.S. soil are again in the spotlight after a series of explosions at the Boston Marathon left at least four several dead, including a police officer in the subsequent manhunt, and about 180 injured
The familiar rhetoric regarding manhunts, heightened security, and national unity and camaraderie has again surfaced, much like the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. But, a perhaps less featured facet of these attacks, and terrorism in general, are those who serve as legal counsel for the arrested parties.
Ronald L. Kuby, a defense lawyer who has worked on a number of high profile cases as well as hosted radio and television shows pertaining to law, said there are some stark differences between litigating the more common criminal cases and defending terrorists.
“One difference is, now, everybody hates you,” he said.
In more common criminal cases the victim’s family and those immediately impacted often harbor malice toward defense attorneys, he said, but when a terror suspect is being tried, the public at large often scoffs at the attorney.
“The problems begin on day one; the families [of victims are] pissed and the public is furious,” he said, but, “the fact that the public doesn’t like me doesn’t bother me.”
Kuby bluntly described his motive for engaging in the sometimes unpopular legal practice of defending suspected terrorists. “They need to be defended,” he said.
He said he has been defending those the public labels “terrorists” since long before Al-Qaeda became a household name, and has taken cases dealing with suspected terrorists since as early as 1984.
He said Puerto Rican freedom fighters, Sheikh nationalists as well as homegrown Americans have been among some of his clients.
In one case in 2009 Kuby defended Ahmad Wais Afzali, a New York City imam who was caught up in the investigation of a plot to blow up the New York City subway. Eventually he was deported without jail time and Kuby said his only transgression was lying to federal law enforcement agents. Kuby said that may have been the result of communication issues between the New York Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation and he was, in fact, well intentioned and trying to prevent the terror plot.
Some lawyers justify their taking on the socially unpopular cases with “very lofty sentiments” about protecting the sanctity of the U.S. judicial system and democracy, but those sort of ideals are not what Kuby points to when asked.
“A lot of lawyers aggrandize their purpose by attaching themselves to the flag and I’ve never felt comfortable when people do it,” he said.
For Kuby, it’s more about the person he is defending than where he is when he is doing it, he said. And, ultimately, it comes down to defending someone who has most likely already been found guilty in the court public opinion. Those people, he said, are the ones most likely in need of a defender.
He said he is mindful of what those closest to him will think when he takes a case and his family has always expected a better explanation for his decisions to take unpopular clients than “it will get publicity” or “that’s just my job.”
“My life is filled with people who make strong moral judgments and make strong moral condemnations,” Kuby said.
Many cases Kuby takes are wrongful convictions, he said, and he also works toward mitigating the sentences in the instances where there is a possibility for a judge’s discretion in punishment.
Defense attorney Andrew G. Patel also has some experience defending suspected terrorists as well, and said there are limits to what he could discuss publically, as there are open cases he is dealing with. However, he noted there are some overarching differences between more common criminal cases and trials related to terrorism.
“There are issues that come up in terrorism cases that don’t come up in other criminal cases,” Patel said, pointing out classified information is often at the heart of the matter and government clearances become a factor.
Much like Patel, Kuby cited some practical differences when taking alleged terrorists as clients. For one, they are usually housed in the highest security prisons. The language barrier between him and his client, and subsequent need for translators and obtaining the appropriate clearances for the translators and paralegals, are among some of the barriers.
He said often he is dealing with classified material and usually is unsuccessful at getting the proper security clearances from the government. However, his argument to the bench, which has been successful, is the reality that the judiciary is responsible for administering the right to a fair trial. While the judge cannot force the government to turn over classified materials, the judge can throw a case out. Ultimately, albeit with substantial restrictions to where he can access the documents, the government obliges so as not to prevent prosecution.
As for the most recent act of terrorism, Kuby said he has no “desire to elbow his way to the front of the line” to defend anyone arrested in connected with the Boston Marathon bombings, citing a growing crop of competent attorneys specialized in the defense of terror suspects.