The Boston Marathon bombing and Miranda Rights

May 1, 2013

After the lengthy manhunt and citywide lockdown in Boston on Friday that led to the capture of one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, attention quickly turned to how the case would be handled once the suspect was in custody. Would it be a criminal matter, or would 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be labeled as an enemy combatant and tried before a military commission?

Associate Clinical Professor Sue McGraugh was interviewed on KMOX radio Monday afternoon about the debate over how to handle the case and when/whether to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. "It serves the government well to make sure someone doesn't get a lawyer right away...as long as someone doesn't have a lawyer they're not protected," she told KMOX's Mark Reardon.

Authorities cited the Public Safety exception to question Tsarnaev before reading him his Miranda rights and placing him under formal arrest. Prof. McGraugh said in the KMOX interview that such a move is risky, since if the questions they asked before reading him his rights weren't specifically tailored to finding out specific information, any other information or evidence obtained based on what he told the authorities could be ruled inadmissible at trial.

On Monday, the White House confirmed that Tsarnaev, who is an American citizen, would be charged in the Federal court system and prosecuted that way. "Under U.S. law, United States citizens cannot be tried in military commissions," Press Secretary Jay Carney said in Monday's press briefing. "And it is important to remember that since 9/11, we have used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists. The effective use of the criminal justice system has resulted in the interrogation, conviction and detention of both U.S. citizens and noncitizens for acts of terrorism committed inside the United States and around the world."

Also on Monday, a Federal magistrate judge was present in the hospital room when Tsarnaev was told what the charges against him would be. Prof. McGraugh said having a judge present for such an event is unusual, and that normally you wait until the suspect can appear in a court room. She expressed concern about the speed of the process. "This is an incredibly vulnerable criminal defendant," she said, referencing Tsarnaev's injuries sustained during the police search. "You would hope they would get him counsel as soon as possible and delay the start of court appearances until he's well enough to leave his hospital bed."

Prof. McGraugh ended the interview by explaining why she thinks it's important to treat Tsarnaev like any other criminal suspect. "The law as it applies to this gentleman applies to everybody. Our laws are intended to protect people whom others don't like, that's why the law applies to everybody equally...By ensuring this gentleman gets those rights, we're ensuring that should we or someone we love needs those protections, they're going to get them."

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