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April 24, 2013

Uphill battle for defense of marathon bombing suspect

NORMAN — There are photos of the suspect at the bomb scene, video footage of him dropping a knapsack at the site of one of the blasts, and perhaps most incriminating could be the written words of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev himself during questioning in a Boston hospital. A case with evidence like this may be the toughest challenge a lawyer can face: defending someone accused of an act of terror so horrific a nation cries out for swift, severe punishment.

Attorneys who handle terrorism and other notorious cases say public opinion is stacked against the defense for obvious reasons. Acts of terrorism unleash an outpouring of anger from the public, including potential jurors. In Boston, the circumstances are especially egregious: Three people, including an 8-year-old boy, died in the twin blasts, more than 260 were injured, and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer was later fatally shot.

Some lawyers say that in this case, the surveillance evidence and a police shootout make a “he wasn’t there” innocence claim untenable — and keeping Tsarnaev out of the execution chamber may itself be a triumph.

“The reality is you just try to save his life,” said Thomas A. Durkin, a Chicago lawyer who has defended several terrorism suspects, including Ramzi bin al Shibh, one of the alleged plotters in the 9/11 attacks now being held in Guantanamo.

Durkin said there are several steps the defense can take: Hire top-notch investigators, look for possible psychiatric issues or brain damage and scour for potential vulnerabilities in how the government collected evidence. But he said the biggest hurdles for lawyers, clearly, are the bombings and the ensuing horror.

“It’s just an unspeakable crime,” Durkin said. “It strikes at the heart of a free society. It strikes fear into everyone. It’s just an awful, awful situation — people standing, watching a race one second and having no feet after that. I can’t imagine worse evidence.”

Frank Rubino, a Miami defense attorney who represented former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on drug conspiracy charges, agreed it wouldn’t make sense to deny the younger Tsarnaev’s involvement, but attorneys could try to spare his life by focusing on his age — 19 — and possible coercion by his older brother, Tamerlan, 26, killed Friday in a police shootout.

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