October 20, 2014

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case: the shortest status conference ever

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:38 pm

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Today another status conference took place in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case. This was the shortest and probably the least eventful status conference so far, beginning at 10:00 and ending by 10:15.

The Tsarnaev defense team was represented by Judy Clarke, David Bruck, and William Fick, and the prosecution by William Weinreb, Nadine Pellegrini, and Aloke Chakravarty. The two sides shook hands and chatted a bit before Judge George O’Toole took the bench. In the gallery were the usual media and law enforcement officials. Somewhat surprisingly, outside the courthouse were a handful of protesters holding signs criticizing the government’s prosecution of Tsarnaev and the shooting death of Ibragim Todashev at the hands of FBI agents. According to news reports, one of the protesters was Todashev’s mother-in-law. There was a larger than usual security presence, leading some to speculate that Tsarnaev himself might make a surprise appearance (he didn’t).

The status conference provided a few new details about the trial schedule and jury selection process. Witness lists will be due by December 15, the Monday before the final December 18 status conference. Unsurprisingly, the first week of the trial, which will begin on January 5th, will be “consumed with jury selection,” according to Judge O’Toole. No one will have to worry about calling witnesses until the next week or later. Jury selection will be, in Judge O’Toole’s words, a “rolling admissions policy.” Groups of potential jurors will come in and fill out questionnaires, some will advance to individual voir dire, some of these will be disqualified for cause or through the exercise of peremptory challenges, and once enough have made it through this step, they’ll be seated on the jury and the process will be done. Judge O’Toole said that the court will need at least 1000 people to fill out questionnaires. He predicted that about 10% of these will make it through to the individual voir dire stage, leaving a pool of 100 to be whittled down further through challenges for cause and peremptory challenges. When asked by Attorney Weinreb, Judge O’Toole mentioned that there’s a chance that jury selection will be delayed one day, to January 6th, if there are other jury trials beginning on the same day.

Additionally, Judge O’Toole decided to deny without prejudice the defense motion to suppress the statements that Tsarnaev made while being questioned by investigators at Beth Israel Hospital. The government is not planning to use these statements as evidence in its case in chief.

Finally, at the end of the hearing, Attorney Fick mentioned the recent Newsweek article by Michele McPhee about Tsarnaev’s family and the women in his life. He cited this as another example of the “troubling leak issue” that the defense team has complained to the court about before, and mentioned that the article cited “high-level law enforcement sources,” despite repeated warnings from the judge and U.S. Attorney against speaking to the press. He said that he plans to make an official submission to the court about this article in the near future. Judge O’Toole said that he hadn’t seen the article but would look into it.

The next status conference is scheduled for November 12th at 10:00. The parties will likely discuss the defense team’s motion to compel the prosecution to turn over documents related to the 2011 triple murder in Waltham and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s suspected involvement in it.

October 14, 2014

Robel Phillipos trial continues

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 10:45 pm

The trial of Robel Phillipos continued today in Boston’s federal court. This morning, FBI Special Agent James Scripture, who examined the defendant’s iphone, continued his testimony, and the court viewed text messages between Phillipos and his friends in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The Boston Globe has a great chart of these texts. In them, Phillipos chats casually with alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has brief exchanges with Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, the two other friends who are charged with interfering in the bombing investigation, and tells other friends about being questioned by the FBI and recognizing Tsarnaev as the bombing suspect pictured in news reports.

After Agent Scripture, the next witness to take the stand was Quon Le Phan, who was Robel’s suite-mate at UMass Dartmouth during sophomore year (2012-2013). He described both Robel and Dzhokhar as friends and said that Azamat and Dias “occasionally” came to visit as well. “We’d play games and we’d smoke,” he replied when asked what the group did together. When asked what they smoked, he replied, “marijuana.”

During spring semester, Robel lived at home, but on April 18th, 2013, the Thursday after the bombing, he visited Quon in his room around noon. “He had a marijuana hearing,” Quon explained. “He was speaking to the administrator on campus.” When asked what the two did before this meeting, Quon testified, “We smoked.” When asked what they smoked, he replied, “marijuana.” This elicited some slight laughter from the gallery. When asked how often the two smoked together, Quon replied, “plenty of times.” He added that they smoked at various times of day, including before class.

At dinner, Quon saw the newly-released photos of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on his phone. “I saw similarities in one suspect… to Dzhokhar,” he testified. After dinner, he met up with Robel, and “we talked about how the Boston Marathon suspect, one of them, looked like Dzhokhar.” They and another roommate watched coverage of the bombing investigation on TV. After 30 minutes, Robel left, saying that he was going to Pine Dale, the dorm where Dzhokhar lived. Quon continued to watch the news “for a majority of the night.”

The next morning, April 19th, Robel came to Quon’s room and woke him up at about 7:00 a.m. “He pointed out that the suspect was Dzhokhar,” Quon testified. Robel left a backpack containing marijuana in the room. Later that day, Robel was at Dias and Azamat’s off-campus apartment when he called Quon, sounding “rushed” and urgent” and asking to be picked up because “he didn’t want to be there.” Quon did so, then tried to return to campus, but was unable to because the campus was locked down. So he, Robel, and his roommate went to McDonald’s and then to Quon’s mother’s apartment in Worcester. The group continued to discuss the bombing investigation, manhunt, and lockdown. At 9:30 p.m., Quon drove Robel to a Price Chopper supermarket, where Robel was interviewed by the FBI. Finally, Quon returned to his dorm, where he watched news about Dzhokhar’s arrest.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Susan Church asked Quon whether he and Robel smoked marijuana from a joint or from a bong. He was then asked to describe what a bong is, and drew laughs when he said he didn’t know how to explain it.

The prosecution will wrap up their case tomorrow with testimony from one more FBI agent. It is unknown whether Phillipos will take the stand.


October 10, 2014

Robel Phillipos trial recap

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 12:05 am

This week I was able to observe some bits and pieces of the Robel Phillipos trial. Phillipos is one of the friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who is accused of helping to cover up Tsarnaev’s alleged role in the Boston Marathon bombing. He faces two charges of making false statements to federal investigators which carry up to 8 years in prison each.

Numerous friends and family of Phillipos have been present in the courtroom, filling the entire left-hand section of benches. The brother of Azamat Tazhayakov, a friend of Tsarnaev who was convicted of obstruction of justice back in June, has also been sitting in on the trial.

Because I was not there for all of the testimony, this blog post is absolutely not comprehensive, but I figured it may be of interest to those following the case.

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September 30, 2014

A tribute to Suffolk Downs

Filed under: sports by Victoria Liberty @ 9:47 pm

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission announced that the historic racetrack Suffolk Downs will not be awarded the Boston-area casino license. (It will instead be awarded to a proposed Wynn casino in Everett.) As a result, the track’s owners and manager announced that it will be closing at the end of this season.

This news is nothing short of tragic. There truly is nowhere like Suffolk Downs, a fact that is apparent from the moment you pull into the parking lot and catch a glimpse of the track through the chain link fence. Once inside, you can take in the races from the glassed-in grandstand, the cavernous space beneath it (lined with betting windows on one side and silks of famous horses hanging from the ceiling), the more compact clubhouse, or the outdoor benches and picnic tables. There is something magical about being around horses, whether they are loading in the starting gate, racing down the track, exhaustedly coming to a stop afterwards, or whether they are just lead ponies casually trotting around. My first time at Suffolk Downs, I was surprised at how close-up visitors can get to the thoroughbreds. Anyone can go right up to the paddock fence to watch their favorites be saddled up and walked in circles by grooms pre-race. This is also the place where jockeys return to the locker room after races, chatting and joking with each other, congratulating each other after a good result, complaining or shrugging it off after a bad one. Some fans even yell out to their favorite jockeys, who acknowledge them with a smile and wave. Suffolk Downs is truly a blue-collar place, a type of place that is increasingly rare in this day and age but which the world desperately needs more of. I will miss the sight of gruff old racing fans poring over the Daily Racing Form, packing the benches in the clubhouse, swarming to the betting windows, and moving to the rail to urge on their favorite horses. I’ll miss hearing them yelling and swearing with Boston accents at the TVs showing simulcast races. I’ll miss the vaguely uneven cement floors covered in shreds of ripped-up losing tickets, and I’ll even miss the clouds of tobacco smoke in the air.

The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association is attempting to possibly lease the track and keep it alive. I hope against hope that they will succeed. If they do not, the land may be become a mixed-use development or possibly a new stadium for the New England Revolution. No matter what happens, this land, to me, is meant to be a horse track. If Suffolk Downs closes, Massachusetts will forever be an emptier place.

I visited Suffolk Downs this past Saturday, which could be one of its last ever days of racing. Below are some of the photos I took. If you have not had the privilege of visiting Suffolk Downs in person, I hope that these pictures are able to capture a fraction of what it’s like to experience this unique place.

The view from the parking lot.

The view from the parking lot.

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September 1, 2014

Arthur T. Demoulas, a Labor Day hero

Filed under: economy by Victoria Liberty @ 11:17 pm

For most of the summer, people in New England have been following the saga of Market Basket, a supermarket chain known for its low prices, relatively generous wages and benefits for workers, and the CEO responsible for these things, Arthur T. Demoulas. As almost everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows, Arthur’s cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, gained control of the company, fired him, and appointed two new CEOs, leading to a months-long, nearly unanimous revolt by Market Basket workers, who demanded Arthur T.’s return. Arthur T. responded by making an offer to buy the company, which was finally accepted this Thursday. During the worker protests, Arthur T.’s name and face were widely seen on signs, posters, and t-shirts. However, due to the advice of his lawyers during the negotiations, he made no public appearances and almost no public statements. This all changed on Friday morning, when he gave a speech to crowds of happy workers and supporters. Here is an excerpt:

“You taught everybody that here at Market Basket, it’s a place where respect, honor, and dignity is a way of life. Your words were supported by your actions from deep within your hearts. It was your voices that blared through the television, the radio, and newspaper print, to trigger this insurgence and in that act, you displayed to everyone your unwavering dedication and desire to protect the culture of your company. You have demonstrated that in this organization, here at Market Basket, everyone is special. You have demonstrated that everyone here has a purpose, you have demonstrated that everyone has meaning. And no one person is better or more important than another. And no one person holds a position of privilege. Whether it’s a full-timer or a part timer, whether it’s a sacker, or a cashier, or a grocery clerk, or a truck driver, or a warehouse selector, a store manager, a supervisor, a customer, a vendor, or a CEO, we are all equal. We are all equal, and by working together, and only together, do we succeed. You proved, all of you, that your grassroots effort to save your company and harness thousands and thousands of people was not about a family conflict or a Greek tragedy, but more about fairness, justice, and a solid moral compass that unites the human soul. I have always believed that we are born into this world at a certain time and at a certain place to be with certain people for a reason and a purpose. Everyone has invested in me, because of you, I stand here with a renewed vigor and a sense of purpose, and may we always remember this past summer first as a time when our collective values of loyalty, courage, and kindness for one another really prevailed, and in that process, we just happened to save our company… You all, each and every one of you and thousands more that aren’t here today, you have demonstrated to the world that it is a person’s moral obligation and social responsibility to protect the culture which provides an honorable and a dignified place in which to work.”

Arthur T. comes across as an honest, genuine, down-to-earth person. And he stands for a very important ideal: that even jobs not considered “prestigious” have honor and dignity. Years ago, it was perfectly feasible to make a decent living doing a blue-collar job, such as cooking, plumbing, construction, or working in a grocery store. Today, however, it has become increasingly difficult to survive doing anything other than a white-collar job that requires a college degree. Far too many people work 40 hours a week or more, yet are unable to make enough money to live on. Market Basket is an exception to this disturbing trend. Baggers, cashiers, truck drivers, and warehouse workers perform just as valuable work as much as investment bankers, management consultants, lawyers, and doctors, and society could not function without them. Arthur T. recognizes this. His return this Labor Day weekend provides a reason to celebrate, not only for his employees and customers, but for everyone who believes in the rights and dignity of workers.

August 21, 2014

Dias Kadyrbayev pleads guilty

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:06 pm

Dias and Dzhokhar

Dias Kadyrbayev, a friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who was charged with obstructing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing, pleaded guilty today in federal court. The change of plea hearing took place today at 2:00 before Judge Douglas Woodlock.

Kadyrbayev was escorted into the courtroom promptly at 2:00, wearing jeans and a blue, short-sleeved polo. He conferred with his defense attorney, Robert Stahl, before Judge Woodlock took the bench. In addition to the usual media, spectators, and law enforcement officials, Kadyrbayev’s father was in attendance. He was nearly alone in the defense section of the gallery, accompanied by another man in a suit who according to news reports was a representative from the Kazakhstan consulate.

Judge Woodlock told the court that he had a copy of the plea agreement in hand, which was signed by both the defense and prosecution. A Russian interpreter was sworn in, and sat at the defense table in case Kadyrbayev needed some translation help.

Then, Kadyrbayev himself was sworn in, and Judge Woodlock questioned him to ensure that he was making a voluntary and informed decision to plead guilty. In response to Judge Woodlock’s questions, Kadyrbayev said that he was 20 years old, that he had completed his freshman year of college, was born in Kazakhstan, and is not a U.S. citizen. He answered in the negative when asked if he is taking any medication or seeing any physician or mental health professional for any physical or mental problem. When asked if he had ever smoked marijuana, he replied, “yes, I did,” but denied ever using any other drugs, and said that his past marijuana use has no impact on his ability to make important decisions. When asked if he felt ready and able to make the decision to plead guilty today, he replied, “yes, sir.” He confirmed that no one had threatened him or promised him anything in return for his guilty plea (other than the terms outlined in the plea agreement).

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August 13, 2014

In praise of the heroic holdout juror

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:59 pm

Last week a mistrial was declared in the case of Dr. Joseph Zolot and nurse Lisa Pliner, who were facing federal criminal charges for prescribing opiates. They were charged with conspiracy to violate federal drug laws and eight counts of drug distribution. 11 of the 12 jurors wanted to convict them. And according to this article in the Boston Globe, the sole holdout juror wrote a letter to the judge in which she described her experiences and how she was bullied during deliberations. For standing her ground and sticking to her principles in the face of peer pressure, this juror is, in my opinion, nothing short of heroic.

Here are some excerpts from the juror’s letter:

“One of the jurors started yelling at me . . . and I left the courthouse thinking that I would rather break a toe than spend another day stuck in a room with the other jurors. Whenever anyone gets irritated it does seem like I have become the scapegoat…. Only four people bothered to read what I wrote and the rest seemed to just dismiss my ideas. Some, but not all of the jurors have started to accuse me of not being as thorough as they are. I do not agree with this. I believe this is just because they are frustrated with me and have stopped respecting my ideas… Deliberations may be edging towards misconduct (as I interpret the situation).”

The juror added that other jurors proposed trading votes, that and some switched their votes from the minority view to the majority, with one explaining that “she had to.”

It’s tragic that 6 people died from overdosing on painkillers prescribed by Zolot and Pliner. But as harsh as it may sound, these people made the choice to take drugs, with full knowledge of the danger involved. Doctors are not responsible for the decisions that their patients make. It’s wrong that medical professionals can face criminal charges merely for not being strict enough in denying their patients access to medications.

So for giving these two individuals, who in my opinion should never have been charged, another shot at justice, the holdout juror did the right thing. I don’t know if I would be able to stick to my convictions while outnumbered 11 to one.

The judge, Judge Patti Saris, called the juror’s note “improper,” but I couldn’t disagree more. The bullying experienced by the holdout juror shines a light on the problems inherent in our jury system. Any system that requires people to be unanimous is unfair to those who hold unpopular views. With a hung jury considered an extremely undesirable outcome, and judges customarily urging deadlocked juries to resume deliberations until they reach a verdict, it can be nearly impossible for a minority juror to stick to his or her beliefs. Unless all of the jurors happen to genuinely share the same opinion, this system leads inevitably to jurors being pressured into voting against their conscience. Perhaps a better system would be one in which jurors simply vote, either anonymously or not, and either immediately after closing arguments or after a period of group discussion of pre-determined length. In any case, the holdout juror’s actions took a lot of courage and made me think. For that, I salute her.

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